CHAMPAIGN — Few college basketball storylines have lingered nationally as long as the status of Andre Curbelo.
That’s what happens when the consensus heading into the 2021-22 season was the Illini sophomore point guard was in line to have one of the biggest breakout years in the sport.
Curbelo picked up a few votes in the preseason All-American process, and speculation was high he’d be firmly in the mix as one of the best players in the country come the end of the season.
The answer to the “When will Curbelo return?” question, though, hasn’t changed. At least officially from Illinois coach Brad Underwood. There has been and remains no clear timetable for Curbelo’s return.
That’s despite reports last week during the Fox Sports 1 broadcast of Illinois’ win at Minnesota that Curbelo had been participating in practice on the scout team. And from The Athletic’s Seth Davis on Monday morning that Curbelo was “expected to be fully cleared for practice” after “steadily ramping up his physical activity over the last week-and-a-half.”
Or maybe not. Newly ranked at No. 25, Illinois (11-3, 4-0) is set to return to action at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Nebraska (6-10, 0-5). Curbelo appears destined to be on the bench in street clothes for a 10th straight game.
“That probably won’t happen,” Underwood said late Monday morning about Curbelo being cleared to return to practice. “One of the things we’re finding out with this process is you can take a step forward and have a couple steps back. Everything is predicated for him based on his reaction to how he does in a workout and as we progress forward with his workouts and conditioning how he responds.
“We’ll keep monitoring it. He’s had a minor setback. We’ll see what it looks like as we continue to move forward.”
Curbelo missed Illinois’ season opener against Jackson State on Nov. 9 after suffering a concussion in the first exhibition game against St. Francis on Oct. 23.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard returned to play in games against Arkansas State on Nov. 12, Marquette on Nov. 15, Cincinnati on Nov. 22 and Kansas State on Nov. 23, but he was clearly unwell in the second half of his last appearance against the Wildcats and subbed in and out of the game repeatedly.
Curbelo hasn’t played since. Underwood said Monday the Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, native has done “very little” on the court in terms of actual practice or with the ball in his hands since late November.
“Everything is based on conditioning with him,” Underwood said. “It’s been a physical therapy process. Just starting with a ball and getting back. We can’t do anything with him until he gets back in shape. Obviously, he’s been out a couple months. The conditioning piece has been at the forefront of all this and trying to get him back that way as well so we don’t create another injury or another problem.”
Curbelo has remained active on the Illinois bench in the last nine games despite not playing. He often moves from the end of the bench to discuss something with the coaches, and, like when he plays, always has a question ready for the officials to explain something. It’s also not unusual to see him on his feet shouting out instructions to his teammates or huddling with them during a timeout.
“He’s a pretty smart dude,” Illinois junior forward Omar Payne said. “Sometimes when I come to the bench, he gives me some tips that he sees in the game. Point guard tips that he thinks will help me in the game. It’s actually pretty helpful.”
Tuesday’s game at Nebraska will mark the last of the first half of Illinois’ season. Given Curbelo has played just four games, he would be in line for a medical redshirt if he didn’t return this season. The Illini are working toward the opposite scenario, though.
“We’ll play him however many games are left,” Underwood said. “Everything we’re doing right now is to get him back on the court as soon as he can get back on the court. He’s pushing toward that. Until there’s something more concrete or different, we won’t approach it any other way.”