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Illinois to return to play; Underwood: Curbelo ‘progressing’

The Illini are back in action this week against two Big Ten teams.

NCAA Basketball: St. Francis (PA) at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Illini last played a game. After some COVID-19 issues in the Illini program, Illinois is finally set to return to the hardwood Tuesday night against Minnesota.

The Illini are currently not ranked, but they are the leading vote getter among unranked teams in the NCAA.

Since opening the season 2-2, Illinois has won seven of its last eight games — including an 88-63 win over Missouri in the team’s annual Braggin’ Rights contest the last time out.

As the Illini have battled numerous injuries all season long, head coach Brad Underwood has cited how important practice is to his team. Looking forward to a Christmas break to improve, Illinois had its plans derailed as 10 Illini tested positive for COVID-19 upon their return to campus on Dec. 26.

“We did not meet the seven-player requirement to play a game during last 10 days,” Underwood said.

After shutting down the program to quarantine and get healthy, the Illini are expecting all players — aside from injured Andre Curbelo and Austin Hutcherson — to be available as they look to keep their conference record perfect.

“We’ve had a couple days back with the majority of the group,” Underwood said.

The game was originally scheduled to be played Sunday, but in order to give Illinois time to finish quarantining and prepare, Minnesota agreed to reschedule the game for Tuesday — something Underwood and the Illini are thankful for.

Big Ten/State Farm Center Covid Updates

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has led to a resurgence of positive cases all over the United States. Because of this, the Big Ten had made updates to the forfeiture policy to clarify the new rules.

Last week in a statement, the Big Ten said: “If a team or teams is/are unable to participate in a scheduled Conference competition due to COVID-19, and as a result the competition is unable to occur on the calendar day on which it is scheduled, the competition will not automatically be considered a forfeiture. Upon review and approval by the Conference office, in consultation with the participating institutions and the Big Ten Chief Medical Officer, Dr. James Borchers, the competition may be rescheduled, or declared a no contest or a forfeiture.”

That will depend on amount of available players, coaches and a few other factors.

“A team that does not compete, and is unable to demonstrate why it is unsafe to compete, will be assessed a forfeiture. Postponed competitions that do not result in forfeiture but are unable to be rescheduled will be declared “no contests,’” the press release said.

In addition to the Big Ten, State Farm Center has made some changes to their policies as well. All fans and spectators are required to show proof of vaccination with a matching photo I.D. or a proof of a negative test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of the games. All patrons are required to wear masks as well unless actively eating and drinking.

Those new restrictions are already in place, but the first game fans can expect to see them active is Thursday’s game against Maryland — where the Illini will be honoring legend Ayo Dosunmu by raising his jersey into the rafters.

Curbelo’s Status

Andre Curbelo was expected by many to take a large jump in production in his sophomore season. The Puerto Rico native appeared on multiple preseason All-American lists.

But Curbelo’s sophomore campaign has been a battle through numerous injuries. After suffering a concussion in the Illini’s exhibition game, the point guard has played in just four games this season — his last on Nov. 23 against Kansas State.

Curbelo is taking on some undisclosed issues as well, and while Underwood has not gotten into specifics in his player’s personal business with the media, he has echoed that the support Curbelo receives from the fans is impactful and that the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year is “progressing.”

“He’s progressing,” Underwood said. “His conditioning and physical therapy is moving in the right direction. We’re excited and hopeful here.”

Underwood said last week that the Illini do expect to get Curbelo back sometime this season. The coaching staff has been forced to game plan on the fly this season after reworking their offense to run through Curbelo over the offseason — but the Illini are averaging 88 points per game over their last seven contests without the talented point guard.