Those words were used by former Illinois football coach Lovie Smith when explaining the dismissal of some of his more talented players from a promising young core. At the time, Illinois fans were frustrated with both the players and the coach as a languishing football program was dismissing a couple of players who received much acclaim after their freshman seasons and gave hope to a starved fanbase. Flash forward a few years and the Illinois basketball program finds itself in a similar situation with its mercurial point guard, Andre Curbelo.
Earlier today the sophomore point guard announced that he was entering the transfer portal, all but cementing his departure from the basketball program he helped turn around and win two championships. Some Illinois fans are probably happy to hear this news, while others are frustrated to see the talented guard leave after an injury-riddled season that caused him to take a step backward, instead of the major step forward that many fans had hoped for and anticipated. Either way, watching how the last few games of Curbelo’s Illinois career played out on the court, today’s news probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Coming into Illinois, recruiting analysts boasted about the consensus top-50 guard’s ability to penetrate defenses and create opportunities for his teammates. Surrounded by shooters with his ability to finish at the rim or make passes others would not dare to even attempt, Curbelo was a guy that defenses often didn’t have an answer for as a freshman. Most times on the court as a freshman, Curbelo was surrounded by NBA talent or an emerging DaMonte Williams who cashed in on all of the open looks en route to leading the NCAA in three point shooting percentage. Playing more off the ball, Trent Frazier had the legs to be a much more consistent from three in 20-21. Quite simply, Andre Curbelo was the key that revved up the Illinois offense as a freshman and provided ample open jumpshots for Illinois’ arsenal of shooters.
It was only natural to believe that Curbelo would be all that and a little bit more as a sophomore. As a freshman, Curbelo shot 16% from three point range. While most Illinois fans didn’t and weren’t expecting him to jump up around 40%, many believed that he would likely around the 33% mark. The wild turnovers that sometimes plagued him as a freshman should be reduced with a full year of experience under his belt. When pondering who would become the closer after Ayo Dosunmu’s departure, most Illinois fans thought that torch would be passed to Curbelo. He might not be relied on to knock down all the big shots, but most people felt confident he would be able to create late clock opportunities for himself or his teammates that would translate to winning. Illinois fans were treated to that magic in Illinois 2OT loss versus Purdue when he returned from concussion protocol to ignite a stagnant Illinois offense and make unbelievable plays down the stretch to keep extending the game for the Illini. We saw his guts as he played through injury at a time when Illinois was teetering after an early season route against an average Cincinnati team and struggling to find itself with an above average Kanas State team. Unfortunately, those games were only the few highlights to Curbelo’s season.
The 21-22 Illinois basketball team endured constant injury and disruption, but it’s more likely that this team wasn’t perfectly fitted for Curbelo’s style of play, even if he had been healthy all year. In the 20-21 season, Curbelo was surrounded by Dosunmu, Frazier, Williams, Jacob Grandison, and Adam Miller. All five of those players were trusted guys in the rotation that shot 34% or higher from 3 point range. Quite simply, teams couldn’t help off shooters, which created ample driving lanes and opportunities for the slashing guard. In the 21-22 season, Curbelo only had two teammates, Grandison and Alfonso Plummer, that played consistent minutes and shot over 33% from three point range. Additionally, Curbelo and Plummer didn’t play a lot of extended minutes together because of their size and inconsistencies on the defensive end of the floor. Williams regression from three and Curbelo’s inability to raise his own shooting percentage allowed teams to pack in their defense most times when Curbelo saw the floor this year, which created fewer driving lanes for Curbelo this year.
Another issue for Curbelo and the 21-22 Illini squad was Kofi Cockburn’s focal point in the offense. The season before, teams were forced to pick their poison. Were they going to try and have Cockburn beat them in the post, or were they going to dare Illinois’ sharpshooters to rain threes on them all night? This season, teams knew what the focal point of the Illinois offense was, Kofi. More times than not, when teams had success against Illinois they jammed up the lane and forced Illinois to try and make shots from long range. Cockburn was not much of a threat in the pick and roll because he wasn’t a threat to pop. Coupled with Curbelo’s inconsistent long range shooting, it made little sense to run pick and roll plays with those two players involved. Therefore, teams oftentimes dared Curbelo to shoot from three, leaving him wide open, daring, tempting, even begging the guard to shoot from three. Curbelo knew that was the plan going into the season, and even got teed up a couple times for showing emotion towards opponents when he would make a shot against teams that were daring him to shoot. Unfortunately for Curbelo, in the long run that strategy paid dividends for most high level teams as he ended the season having made just 4 three pointers in Big Ten and postseason play.
It’s natural to play the what-if game when looking at Curbelo’s career up to this point and his future. What-if he didn’t have the concussion that cost him nearly half the season? Would consistent practice and game reps translate to a better shooting percentage? What-if the guard had another full offseason to work on his outside shot? What-if Curbelo was the true point guard in an offense where guys like RJ Melendez, Luke Goode, and Brandon Podziemski were getting consistent minutes next year? The freshman trio had two guys shoot over 37% from three in their first season of major college basketball, so with them and an emerging Coleman Hawkins, it felt like the Illinois offense would look a lot more similar to the 20-21 team than this past season with or without Kofi back in the lineup. With Kofi back, the arsenal of shooters, and a stronger and more confidence Curbelo, this offense could really kick. Without Kofi and some bigs that can help create some better spacing on the floor and pick and pop options, Curbelo’s skill set could have put teams in a defensive blender. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see those combinations and possibilities at Illinois with an experienced and healthy Andre Curbelo.
The other what-ifs with Curbelo swing wildly the other way. What if he didn’t develop a consistent jump shot? Would teams consistently pack it in on Illinois, taking away Curbelo’s driving lanes and stiffling Kofi or whoever else is working down in the post? What if Curbelo never quite got over his careless ways with the basketball? As a junior, Curbelo would have been nearly the exclusive point guard on the team. Could Illinois’ offense, and team, consistently function and win with a guy that is likely to turn the ball over 5-7 times a game while playing extended minutes?
At the end of the day, there were too many uncertainties with Curbelo’s game and how he fit into the big picture at Illinois. It’s not his fault; it’s not Brad Underwood’s fault. It’s reality. Illinois needed Curbelo to take a significant jump in his game this year, and due to a variety of reasons, he couldn’t and didn’t. As a coach of a highly successful, championship level program, you need to be certain that when you hand the keys of the engine over to someone that they are the driver that you have groomed and prepare. Brad Underwood and Illinois fans couldn’t have felt truly confident in Curbelo and Illinois success going into next sesaon based off what we saw this year.
It’s why Underwood brought in Andres Feliz in 2018, despite having Trent Frazier and welcoming Dosunmu aboard. It’s the same reason that Illinois has been going hard after 5 Star prep talent at the point guard position in the 2022 class this season. For all of the same reasons Illinois fans were frustrated with Andre Curbelo, the coaching staff saw the same things and had the same questions. Their jobs depend on making the best personnel decisions, the tough decisions.
Brad Underwood spent countless hours with Andre Curbelo. In ways entirely different than his biggest supporters, Underwood loved Curbelo. Just like in ways entirely different than his biggest distractors, Underwood was likely just as frustrated by Curbelo. It’s why he greenlit his staff to go seek out prep options that might be able to step right in next season and take on a lead guard role. Underwood had to prepare for this divorce. He had to prepare to do what was best for his team and for his program to continue on with their championship ways.
Divorce is never fun for anyone involved, but in this case it seems like this is a divorce that will likely leave both parties better off than if they had stayed together too long. Illinois and Underwood have made no secret their desire to add more length on the perimeter. Illinois is in deep with 6 foot 3 inch 5 Star prep point guard Skyy Clark and 6 foot 6 inch shooting guard Terrance Shannon, they’re pursuing 6 foot 5 inch combo guard Antonio Reeves from Illinois State, and recruited 6 foot 2 inch Jayden Epps as a point guard in waiting. Illinois was oftentimes exposed by bigger guards defensively this year with Frazier, Plummer, and Curbelo splitting and sharing minutes. While Curbelo made significant strides defensively on the ball, he was always going to struggle with bigger guards posting him up or going right at him physically. The Big Ten is a rugged and physical conference, that might not be the best match for Curbelo’s style of play and development. In many objective ways, it makes sense for him to pursue other options.
Can you imagine how effective Andre Curbelo could be in a far more wide open, guard friendly league like the ACC or Pac 12? Those leagues, along with the Big East seem like a much better fit for Curbelo to showcase his skills. Without a big man like Kofi anchoring in the lane, it’s hard not to envision Curbelo’s effectiveness going up in a much more open style of play that is similar to what is seen at the next level. It’s not hard to see why Andre Curbelo wanted to pursue a better option, a better partner for the next step in his basketball journey. It’s not a dis to Illinois or Brad Underwood, it’s an honest evaluation of what is likely best for Andre Curbelo’s options to make as much money in the future as he can from playing basketball.
Selfishly as a fan, it’s hard not to wish that we could have seen Andre Curbelo return and reach his full potential as an upperclassmen. Without Curbelo, it’s debatable if Illinois has either one of its championships from the past two seasons. If Kofi left, with Curbelo and a young supporting cast it’s debatable if Illinois would remain in the top half of the Big Ten next season. Thus is and was the relationship with Andre Curbelo and Illinois basketball. I think most fans are going to look back with great memories and moments of joy with the young man, but I also think many fans saw this end coming. I think it’s why so many Illinois fans are frustrated by Curbelo’s decision to transfer, but it is also why so many Illinois fans are likely to be just as excited in the next couple of weeks with incoming additions to the team’s roster at the guard spot.
The one thing I hope that Illinois fans wish is for a great landing spot for Curbelo. I hope he goes on to find great success in his basketball future. How can you not openly root for a guy like Curbelo who loved his school, his coach, and his teammates. I hope Illinois basketball continues to have great success without Andre Curbelo. It’s okay to wish for both things to happen and be disappointed they happened at the same time. Sometimes divorce is good, and at this time it feels like it was the best option for both parties involved. Best of luck, Andre, and thanks for the memories and the championships.