Unlike his game, Andre Curbelo’s sophomore season has been anything but smooth.
The Puerto Rican point guard was supposed to match his magical, monster freshman season with a dynamic encore, pairing with Kofi Cockburn to form one of the most intimidating pick-and-roll combos in college basketball.
To Illinois fans’ chagrin, it hasn’t exactly turned out that way.
Curbelo suffered a concussion and missed large chunks of the season in concussion protocol. When healthy, Curbelo has been inconsistent on the offensive end and found himself struggling mentally and physically to find a new role on a team that was rolling without him.
“Anytime you play without a guy, you get comfortable in a groove, you get comfortable without him,” said Brad Underwood on Wednesday. “Then trying to mix him in, you want him in because you trust him, but you can’t forget about the other guys’ chemistry.”
During Curbelo’s absence, Trent Frazier re-emerged as the confident lead guard of old. Along with one of the sharpest shooters in basketball Alfonso Plummer and “junkyard dog” Da’Monte Williams, Illinois’ backcourt is well-rounded and deep — even without Curbelo.
“One of the positives of the hodge podge of the early season is that guys got minutes and confidence,” Underwood said. “I’m excited about that.”
Though widely known, praised (and yes, sometimes slammed) for his globetrotter plays on the offensive end, it’s no secret that injuries and missed time has affected Curbelo’s attacking style. The sophomore guard is shooting just 34.3% from the field, a drop of nearly 15% from last year.
Struggling to spark his team with spectacular spins and slick passes, Curbelo pivoted to focusing on how he can spark his team: his defense.
“You miss so many games, you try to get into a flow, try to get into a rhythm,” Curbelo said. “That can be difficult especially when the team was supposed to be built around you. You gotta get used to what we’re doing now.
“I’m trying to do the best I can do, whatever I gotta do.”
Curbelo pointed out his aggressiveness on defense as a bright spot against Michigan State last Saturday, and it earned him minutes in crunch time. Though he only played 13 minutes against the Spartans, Curbelo was trusted to close out a two-possession game.
“Andre Curbelo is an elite defender,” Underwood said. “He has great anticipation, great defensive rebounder. We’re gonna need him. We trust him, he’s a very good ball handler. I trust his defensive abilities, he’s proven that. As he feels his way through that i’m gaining confidence.”
As the Illini come face-to-face with the stretch run of the 2021-22 regular season, getting their sophomore star back into a healthy mental state, along with increasing confidence in a different role, may prove to be an X-factor for a team with championship aspirations.
“I sometimes tend to struggle to have a positive mind set,” Curbelo said. “Being in a good mental is a big key, if I stay with a good mindset and have a positive attitude towards everything. Do whatever I gotta do, attack everything, be good for my teammates I think I’ll be okay.”