CHAMPAIGN — Austin Hutcherson thought he was back to 100 percent health in late February and early March.
That’s when the Illinois men’s basketblal guard got back on the court in Los Angeles for some individual workouts following months of rehab and recovery for a stress fracture in his back.
Hutcherson’s return to Champaign this summer confirmed what he thought. Dunking on his Illini teammates and knocking down three-pointers with a hand in his face during workouts at Ubben Basketball Complex were part of the confirmation process. So was handling the physical brand of defense Da’Monte Williams plays. The final barometer of full healthy? Absorbing a screen from 7-foot, 285-pound center Kofi Cockburn.
“I think any bump or screen from Kofi is kind of the max force any human can take,” Hutcherson said with a laugh. “That was definitely the time I felt 100 percent I was back.”
Last season’s stress fracture in his back wasn’t the first time Hutcherson dealt with an injury that kept him off the basketball court.
A car accident before the start of Hutcherson’s sophomore season at The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., cost him some games. Getting undercut a year later during a scrimmage led to a hard fall, multiple lost teeth, a broken jaw and a broken wrist.
Last season’s stress fracture in his back, though, might have been the most consequential.
“Injuries in high school, it’s just a different level of basketball,” Hutcherson said. “Playing at the biggest stage of college basketball, you only get that so long. Having to miss an entire year after a full sit-out year was definitely a different feeling. That first game watching on TV, I cried a little bit. I’m not going to lie. I’m just happy to be back and healthy, and I’m thankful.
“The back injury in high school weakened my back a little bit, and that kind of made me more susceptible to future injuries. I think I’m good now. I got everything I need to fixed and going forward I shouldn’t have any problems.”
Hutcherson had to watch Illinois’ breakthrough 2020-21 season from a distance. He decided to do his rehab in Los Angeles after his family moved there from New York. Hutcherson still considers that the best move he could have made, but being away from Champaign meant the 6-foot-6, 190-pound guard missed time with his teammates during one of the better seasons in program history.
“It was tough to watch it from the sidelines, but I think I learned a lot about myself,” Hutcherson said. “I think I’m a better player and a better person for it, so I think I’ll reap the benefits this year.”
Hutcherson’s love of basketball wavered occasionally when he was nearly constantly injured during high school. His appreciation for the game only grew this time around, and the New York City native also figured out he was stronger than he might have given himself credit for.
“Having an injury like that is pretty serious,” Hutcherson said. “A lot of people might have quit, might not have done the rehab process. I think I was really just driven to get back to 100 percent and show the world what I can do. My dad, my mom — they worked so hard. I grew up seeing them make sacrifices. To just give up on the game really wasn’t an option.”
Illinois might soon be the beneficiary of Hutcherson’s drive to get back on the court. The former Division III standout has drawn plenty of interest from the Illini fan base after hearing about him for two years. Illinois coach Brad Underwood has been effusive in his praise of Hutcherson as an athlete, a shooter and one of the team’s best defenders during his sit-out season in 2019-20 after transferring from Wesleyan University (Conn.).
“I know he hasn’t done it yet for us,” Underwood said. “I think we’ve got a well-rounded player who’s healthy. Now it’s just about kicking the rust off. Getting his feet wet again in that competitive environment under the bright lights with fans in the stands. Then we’ll see.”
Hutcherson understands there’s a considerable amount of hype surrounding his eventual Illinois debut. It’s hard to miss if you spend even a brief moment of time in Illini basketball social media circles.
The 23-year-old Hutcherson is just as anxious and excited to get on the court and show what he’s a capable of doing after two seasons removed from competition, but that doesn’t mean he’s buying into all of the hype and expectations. Hutcherson is confident if he plays the role his team needs, personal success will follow.
“I really preach living in the moment,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing in life. If you look too far ahead, then you’re going to miss where you’re at right now. Living in the moment, taking it day by day and knowing my time will come has been the biggest help.”