Mar 29, 2022

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Andre Curbelo has entered the transfer portal. This was somewhat expected, I think, after the tumultuous season he had. For a few months now, a fresh start seemed to be the direction this would go. But it still makes me sad.

My thoughts go back to Kansas City and the article I wrote after the K-State game. That was the "something is just not right" game, and he was shut down for nearly two months afterwards. At the time, we thought he might continue to work through it on the court, but he didn't play that Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and we didn't see him again until the MLK Day game against Purdue.

Perhaps the best way to talk about this is to go through the timeline. How we got from there to here.

We'll start with the preseason expectations. After his Sixth-Man-Of-The-Year freshman campaign, expectations were through the roof. From his official profile page, here's the list of preseason accolades:

  • Wooden Award Top-50 Watch List
  • Naismith Trophy Watch List
  • Lute Olson Award Watch List
  • Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Watch List
  • All-Big Ten Team, conference media
  • First-Team All-American, Field of 68
  • Third-Team All-American, College Hoops Today
  • Fourth-Team All-American, Dick Vitale
  • No. 3, The Athletic's Top 20 Guards
  • No. 24, CBS Sports' Top 101 Players

The last five are basically five different sources all saying that he'll be one of the 25-best players in college basketball in the 2021-22 season. I think we all agreed. Our preseason expectations were based on Kofi + Belo.

Then the IUP exhibition game happened. Barely a minute in, Belo hit the floor and rolled around in pain, holding the back of his head. I tweeted this:

Belo got up fairly quickly after that, went to the bench, was checked out, and came back in the game. He ended up with a triple-double: 14 points, 12 assists, 10 turnovers.

Then, an hour before the Jackson State game (the season opener), it was announced that Belo would be out with a concussion. He didn't clear concussion tests the day after the UIP game, and he had been out since (the full 11 days between the IUP exhibition and the Jackson State opener). He did return for Arkansas State three days later, but then we hit the rough patch. The inexplicable game at Marquette (4-18 with 7 turnovers). The shocker against Cincinnati after Kofi returned (4-12 with 5 turnovers). And then the incredibly bizarre Kansas State game.

I spent more time agonizing over what to write after that Kansas State game than any other article this year. I really struggled with how to say it. As I referenced in the article, I spent 20% of the second half watching basketball and 80% watching Andre Curbelo. Something was clearly wrong. And there's a lot of sympathy behind my "clearly wrong."

I'll just go back to that article and do some cutting and pasting to bring us up to speed:

I asked Underwood the following question:

"Coach, it looked like there was a moment when Andre came out early in the second half where he kind of put his head on your shoulder. Is that just him working through these concussion things and you letting him tell you where he's at or how does that process work?"

His response:

"Yes. Pretty much, yes. And we're never going to jeopardize a young man's health or well-being. When he says no, that means no, and we get him out."

This helped make more sense of the second half for me. I'll just make a list of the things I observed as I was watching Andre Curbelo:

  • The aforementioned moment where he came out of the game early in the second half and put his head on Brad Underwood's shoulder as they stood there having a conversation.
  • Him somewhat collapsing into Adam Fletcher's arms as he appeared to be at the point of exhaustion.
  • After making one pass under the basket and letting his momentum carry him out of bounds, he kind of just stood there watching, eight feet off the court, as Kansas State grabbed a long rebound and headed the other way.
  • Towel draped around his neck, face pointed to the ground, as he sat on the bench (at this point I thought he might be sick?). But then, up off the bench with a sprint to the scorer's table and back in the game.

Often, when in the game and a whistle would blow, Curbelo would squat down and put his hand on the ground (again, like he was at the point of total exhaustion, even though his play didn't reflect that).

The only way I could make sense of any of it was to try to relate to it. All of this pressure coming into the season - I mean, Field Of 68 had him as a preseason First Team All American - and then a concussion kept him out for nearly two weeks. Upon his return, a loss at Marquette and a fanbase blaming him. Best I could do was try to relate to it using my pathetic athletic career in high school:

I played tennis in high school. During my senior year, I injured my left knee. I had it evaluated and was fitted for a brace (the kind of brace with a metal hinge on either side of the knee). I practice with the brace, didn't like it very much, but I wanted to return to the court.

In my first match back, we're playing a team we should destroy. But I lose the first set of my match. The knee is throbbing, I keep trying to loosen the brace to give me more freedom of movement, and, perhaps most importantly, I'm playing poorly, losing, and angry. After trying to serve to open the second set and getting broken, I go back to the fence and talk to my dad. I tell him that I don't think I can play on. So I decide to "retire" the match, losing 6-4, 1-0, ret. A JV guy took my spot in doubles and I was done for the day.

That night, and especially the next morning, I questioned myself almost non-stop. Did it really hurt that much? Did I really have to quit for the day? Shouldn't I have pushed through? Walking up the stairs to bed that night - I remember this clear as day - I had this "I don't think my knee hurts a single ounce right now - I probably just made up the pain so I could quit".

I didn't make up the pain, of course. I had an actual injury. My knee was still swollen the next day. It was simply "I'm cleared to play as long as I'm wearing the brace, so now it's up to me to work through it." And I believe that "working through it" is so incredibly complicated.

There is tremendous pressure on Andre Curbelo this season. He has to "take over" for Ayo Dosunmu, who was, you know, the first-ever 1st Team AP All American at Illinois. To make matters worse, in the final exhibition game Belo gets a concussion and misses nearly two weeks. Then, at Marquette, he had the chance to win the game at the end but turned the ball over. If you think you felt awful after that loss, he likely felt 10 times worse.

Now we learn that he's still working through "head trauma" and the after-effects of the concussion. He's cleared to play, but he has to feel comfortable out there. And I'm guessing that it's incredibly difficult to get there.

Andre Curbelo would not participate for 55 days after that. The staff shut him down after Kansas State. We don't know the specifics (we don't need to know the specifics), but something was clearly wrong in that K-State game and time off was likely the best solution. He did not return until January 17th against Purdue.

And in that game, he was great. We went to overtime simply because he was great. 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and no turnovers. But at the end of the first overtime, I observed this moment:

He did not come out for the start of that overtime. Whatever had been there 55 days earlier (neck? head? both?) still remained. He was cleared, and he was playing through it, but he wasn't 100%.

I think you remember the rest. It's all recent. He had good moments (Michigan) and bad moments (Chattanooga). And in his final game against Houston, "something is wrong" returned.

If you're not sure what I'm referring to, well, it's hard to say exactly. There was an issue with some equipment (a brace?) before the game. He went to the locker room to... change? He got into an argument with the officials when he returned to the court (to the point where the coaches got involved). He was off from the first dribble, played 9 minutes and 53 seconds, and sat the entire second half.

Again, I don't say that with any malice. I say that with sympathy. Perhaps the best way to describe how I feel about all of this is to put the concussions aside and talk about two moments from this season.

The first happened during a press conference in Pittsburgh. You probably heard about it. Here's a tweet:

That is quintessential Andre Curbelo. Honestly, it's what makes him great. He sees the entire world differently than you and I. If there's a timed competition for that game in Highlights Magazine where you had to find the 9 things that are different in the two pictures, Andre Curbelo would win a world championship. He can spot an angle to bounce a pass to Coleman Hawkins that not one other college basketball player could possibly see and he can observe that a reporter is looking at the dais while typing on his computer. I always wanted to attend class with him because I just know he'd raise his hand and say "you put a page number on slides 1-7 and 9-20 but there was no page number on the 8th slide". I'd love to see the world as he sees the world.

But that's a blessing and a curse. Here's another tweet. Remember this moment in the Nebraska game?

Who noticed what Keisei Tominaga was doing? Andre Curbelo. Who should probably inform the coaches and not get off the bench and start yelling at the officials? Andre Curbelo.

I mean, we've seen it time and again. Remember the player he helped up during the first exhibition game when his teammates left him hanging? Remember that one tweet from a TV reporter near the court (can't remember which game) who reported that an official went to Curbelo (who was in street clothes) and asked him "do you understand your role (on the bench)?" This is all part of the Andre Curbelo experience. He observes a reporter typing without looking and interrupts and NCAA press conference to talk about it. He observes someone reaching out to block a free throw and takes his complaint directly to the officials.

Personally, I love it. He's so incredibly unique. Put all the basketball aside - I very much enjoy people who see the world through a different lens. The way he sees the court is the way he sees the world.

Unfortunately, I think it was very difficult to see through that lens after everything that happened this season. Last year's confidence in March became this year's uneasiness. Whatever the lasting effects were - and remember, he was cleared from the concussion and played three games before it was determined that something wasn't right and he was shut down for 55 days so it wasn't "he got a concussion and sat for two months" - he was never really back to Belo. The mental and the physical never got back in sync.

And when that happens, I do think that it's time for a fresh start. Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever said that about an Illini player who wants to transfer away. I want my team to win basketball games, and I'm selfish, and so I want to see him regain his form in an Illini uniform. But this is a very unique kid, and I think these are very unique circumstances. Here's hoping a new environment helps him clear his head.

So long, Belo. Thanks for the last two years. I hope you find incredible success wherever you go.

Don't ever lose that vision.


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