No quit in Carlwell

No quit in Carlwell

CHAMPAIGN – When it rains on Brian Carlwell, it dumps buckets.

"Compared to what I've seen and what I've been through," he said Wednesday, a knee injury seems like a light drizzle.

On Nov. 30, during a normal practice drill at the Assembly Hall, the 6-foot-11 center banged into a teammate and collapsed on the court, writhing in pain. The drill stopped. Players held their breath as one of their most popular teammates let loose a scream to make your gut sink.

"My initial thought was, 'Man, I just started playing better and now I get hurt,' " he said. "That was my initial thought."

Carlwell sustained a sprained knee. It was initially believed the injury would sideline the sophomore for four to six weeks. He will be on the bench tonight when Illinois hosts Miami (Ohio) at the Assembly Hall (6, Big Ten Network).

Coach Bruce Weber said Wednesday he's leaning more toward the six weeks end of the spectrum, meaning Carlwell likely won't return to action until mid-January at the earliest.

"They went back and did an MRI and it's probably a little worse than they expected," Weber said.

Carlwell's latest setback arrived about nine months after a February car accident hospitalized him for four days and ended his freshman season with eight games to go. You'd figure these kinds of trials would wear on a 20-year-old, even one whose bubbly personality makes it seem he's going on 12.

"Not really," he said when asked if the last year has been tough on him. "I'm a fighter. A knee injury is nothing."

When it comes to tribulations, Carlwell explained, his current plight is relative.

"My sophomore year (at Proviso East High School) I got a call at maybe 12 or 1 in the morning. A teammate of mine was shot and killed with an AK-47 (assault rifle)," said Carlwell, who came from Maywood. "He was a close friend. He was a senior, and I was a sophomore. He was a real close friend.

"So I've seen a lot of stuff. This is nothing. It's easy to smile through this."

The teammate's name was Calvin Ector. He was 17.

"The next day after he got shot we had a playoff game. I remember that. The next day we had a playoff game," Carlwell said. "That was real hard. We played. I don't even think we should have played. We were up at the hospital until 6 the next morning."

Years later the roles were reversed. It was Carlwell's coaches and teammates who got the phone call, shortly after the car accident. Coaches spent the night at the hospital; teammates arrived early the next morning.

Perhaps those experiences best explain how Carlwell maintains a sense of perspective and how he walked into practice Wednesday with a smile on his face. To hear Carlwell tell it, his glass isn't half full, it's overflowing.

"Like I said, this is nothing to me," he said.

"If you know B.C., not too much keeps him down," said senior Brian Randle, whose own injury problems include four surgeries at Illinois. "He's pretty carefree. He loves a joke, loves to play around. I don't know if he looks at it the same way, but for him to bring other people laughter, I think that lifts his spirits."

Today's contest will mark the 14th time in Illinois' last 17 games Carlwell won't play in a game. This season he was averaging 1.7 minutes, the least playing time among scholarship players, and he was waiting on his first point. Through nine games to start last season he was a figure in the playing rotation and averaging 3.2 points in 8.9 minutes per game.

"Even in practice it can be tough. When you're sitting on the sideline you want to be playing," said junior Trent Meacham, whose ankle injury caused him to miss a game Monday for the first time since his sophomore year in high school. "His spirits have been really great. He's always encouraging other guys. I'm not worried about him. We're excited for him to be back out there. Hopefully it will be pretty soon."

Carlwell admitted his work ethic wasn't where it should have been in the months following the car accident. He said that changed after a four-game exhibition tour in Canada and fall conditioning drills.

"Once we got done with the conditioning I felt like I was in the best shape of my life. I pretty much went through every drill in practice," he said. "Last year I would have to sit out some drills because I would get tired. But this year I went through every drill.

"I feel like I was playing some of my best basketball," he said. "Actually, I was real confident about myself. It was just like a different work ethic. I did a lot of talking with my father. He told me to keep working hard. I came in with that type of attitude. That was paying off. I saw it in my everyday game in practice.

"I still got that mind-set. I think I will come back with the same energy once I get back out there."

Carlwell appears to fit the criteria for a medical hardship waiver, and Weber said a redshirt season is a possibility.

"We'll see after (Carlwell heals) and make a decision on whether we'll redshirt him or not," Weber said.

Asked if he will pursue a redshirt season, Carlwell said, "Probably not, just knowing me and how I am. I'm kind of stubborn. It depends on how I bounce back and recover. If I feel like I'm good, I'm just going to brush that off. If I can't do it, then that's something I've got to think about."

He had plenty to think about as a teenager. The physical pain, at least, he has learned to cope with.

"How I grew up and stuff, I've seen a lot worse. It's been a lot worse in my neighborhood, since I can remember," Carlwell said. "I'm walking, I'm breathing."