“He’s gaining ground on it,” Illini coach Brad Underwood responded when asked about the potential return of Andre Curbelo, the day before the blockbuster double overtime loss at home to #4 Purdue. Curbelo scored 20, on 8-14 shooting, and grabbed six rebounds, while handing out three assists.
He caught Purdue coach Matt Painter by surprise, as Curbelo had been out since the November win over Kansas State with a very mysterious injury. (It’s been described as a head and neck injury/head injury/concussion, but there really hasn’t been any official word)
Matt Painter on Andre Curbelo returning after being out since November:
"I wish he would've stayed out…was he jumping rope the whole time?…He's a great player, great passer"
Belo had 20 pts, 6 reb coming off the bench #Illini #Purdue
— Paul M. Banks (@PaulMBanks) January 17, 2022
Whatever the case was, he’s back now, but not fully “match fit” yet.
“He’s literally practiced twice,” said Underwood.
“He’s in horrific shape, horrible shape, but he’s a great athlete…we’ll keep working that piece back in, he impacted the game at a high level. It’s nice to have an All-American back in your program.”
In order for Illinois to be all that they can, and live up to all that preseason hype, they’ll need Andre Curbelo to be Andre Curbelo.
Underwood thought he would only play him about 6-8 minutes, but his electric sophomore point guard and preseason award candidate went to see some specialists out of town and eventually he was cleared.
“Everything is a reaction to what he does that day, and today is the first day he got the go ahead,” Underwood continued.
“He played way more than I expected, way better than I expected.”
Belo was the x-factor, keeping the Illini in the game, as their alpha dog, Kofi Cockburn, struggled with foul trouble and had his worst game of the season.
“He’s a great player, great passer,” Painter said of the Puerto Rican point guard who wears #5.
Overall, it took two overtimes, but in the end, we might have just watched the Big Ten championship game, with Purdue winning 96-88.
“I think Illinois and Purdue have a lot of similarities, both can make threes, and have a low post presence,” said Painter.
“I think Illinois has more overall team quickness and I think they are going to be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
He later discussed what his team needs to work on: “We’re still just an average team, I think you guys would all agree with that.”
It was the first loss in conference play for the Illini, who are now 6-1 in the league.
They are still right there with Purdue and Michigan State as the favorites to win the conference.
Said Underwood: “We got better today. Now everyone has a loss, no one is going to undefeated, we’re a good basketball team, so are they.”
Andre Curbelo was not made available to the media.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, and co-hosts the After Extra Time podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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