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Underwood: Curbelo will continue to come off bench

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The reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the year is back to being sixth man.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Champaign, Ill. — Bench Curbelo is back in business.

A season ago, Andre Curbelo averaged 9.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game despite not starting a single game. As a result, Curbelo was named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.

Some of Curbelo’s best games included a near triple double against Nebraska in February 2021 and an outstanding performance during the Big Ten Championship run in March.

Over the offseason, the Illini lost Adam Miller to the transfer portal and Ayo Dosunmu to the NBA Draft, leaving the starting lineup wide open for Curbelo to jump in. Many expected Curbelo to take a leap in his sophomore season as he was placed on preseason All-American watch lists.

But the Puerto Rican guard’s season was derailed by a concussion suffered in an exhibition game at State Farm Center, which caused Curbelo to miss the Illini season opener against Jackson State.

Curbelo played — and started — the next four games for Illinois on a bit of a minutes limit as he was returning from the concussion. The issue for Curbelo was that the symptoms continued, and every day came with a headache.

It took some time for the Illini medical team to discover what his issue was and how to treat it.

Curbelo remained out from Nov. 23rd — when the Illini beat Kansas State — all the way until Jan. 17, Illinois’ game against No. 4 Purdue.

“There were times where I thought this is going to be forever,” Curbelo said Thursday morning. “I might never be back.”

In the 11 games he missed, the Illini went 10-1 and all Curbelo could do was watch — and cheer — on the sidelines.

“It was tough, not being be able to be out there with my guys,” Curbelo said. “Definitely one of the hardest times of my life.”

But Curbelo did return, and scored a career-high 20 points in a season-high 26 minutes in a double overtime loss to Purdue.

“I was crying on the inside, just happy tears,” Curbelo said. “So proud and thankful to be back on the court.”

Head coach Brad Underwood said Thursday the plan was to have Curbelo play 6-8 minutes off the bench against the Boilermakers, but his performance led to that number going up by 400% in the double overtime thriller.

“He literally practiced twice,” Underwood said after the loss. “He’s in horrific shape...(but) It’s nice to have an All-American guard back.”

In the first four games of the season, Curbelo was not fully healthy, which led to him turning the ball over 16 times. Now that Curbelo is healthy, we saw a composed version Monday who looked similar to the player we saw last year.

The point guard did not turn the ball over abasing Purdue, and Underwood said he will continue to bring Curbelo off the bench — a role that he thrived in last season and excelled in his first game back from injury.

“Why would I change that?” Underwood asked the media on Thursday. “Because you guys think he should start?”

It’s unknown what his playing time will look like in the near future, but Illinois will have Curbelo off the bench against Maryland on Friday and beyond.