By Gavin Good
Growing up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Andre Curbelo fell in love with college basketball from afar.
The Illini freshman, a spunky, wiz of a ball handler, moved to New York City when he was 13. He was inspired by the great Duke teams of the late 2000s and early 2010s, including two national-title-winning squads in 2010 and 2015.
Ahead of No. 6 Illinois’ trip to vaunted basketball Cameron Indoor Stadium to play the Blue Devils on a national TV audience on ESPN, Curbelo shared that Duke was his dream school.
“I don’t know if a lot of people know, but that was like my dream school,” Curbelo said Monday. “And since I was in Puerto Rico watching the NCAA, I always wanted to go to Duke.”
When the Illini touched down at Cameron, they were firing on all fronts, jumping out to a 14-2 lead they’d never look back from. Illinois never trailed and won by 15 points, the most since Louisville won by 15 at Duke in 1983.
Curbelo said that not being expected to win only gives him and his teammates more fuel. In a game that Illinois already had plenty of reasons to be motivated by, he knew he could provide an extra edge.
“Coming to Puerto Rico to New York, nobody knowing who I really am, I was always the underdog,” Curbelo said. “At (Long Island Lutheran), my high school, everybody thought Sierra Canyon was gonna beat us and all these big time teams were gonna beat us. I like that. I like when people talk and say things. I take that and use it to my advantage.”
And the 6-foot-1 point guard did, scoring 12 points as one of six Illinois players to hit double figures on 5 of 9 shooting in 21 minutes. Curbelo also added two assists and two rebounds, while turning the ball over a career-high five times.
While Curbelo and his coach, Brad Underwood, will not be pleased with the turnovers, it was the Puerto Rican’s second standout game in a row. Six days prior, in a 13-point loss to No. 2 Baylor, Curbelo scored 11 points on 3 of 6 shooting, adding four assists and two rebounds.
“He’s a magical ballhandler,” Underwood said. “He’s got what you don’t coach.”
Indeed, Curbelo can spray the ball anywhere on the court. He proved his stellar court vision when he spun the ball through a Duke defender’s legs, bouncing it through to a cutting Kofi Cockburn in the lane, who was fouled as he readied up for a dunk.
“He’s going to be great, and he’s going to be great sooner than later,” Underwood said. “But there’s an adjustment period here that all players go through.”
Curbelo has already provided an abundance of dazzling dishes, spins and flips for viewers this season, and this is just the start of his career at Illinois.
He’s fourth in scoring, averaging 10.4 points per game in 17.4 minutes of game action. Though he is averaging 3.2 turnovers, Curbelo is adding 2.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game so far.
To give credit where it’s due: Illinois fans were on the Andre Curbelo hype train early, latching onto videos of stunning highlight-reel passes and lightning-quick drives to the hoop to score.
Curbelo, who was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 8 point guard in the Class of 2020 and picked Illinois over Indiana, Miami, Oregon and St. Johns, began drawing more national buzz after taking over a game against Sierra Canyon, one of the highest profile high school programs, in February.
Curbelo out-dueled Bronny James, LeBron James’ son, helping lead Long Island Lutheran High School, or LuHi, scoring 23 points, while adding 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals in an 86-74 upset.
Coming into that game, most expected Sierra Canyon to win easily. That gave Curbelo the extra bit of gumption he needed to dazzle on national TV.
Now, Curbelo is drawing on the same motivational reserves, even though the Illini are the sixth-ranked team in the country.
“Coming from Puerto Rico to New York, nobody knowing who I really am, I was always the underdog,” Curbelo said. “At LuHi, my high school, everybody thought Sierra Canyon was gonna beat us and all these big time teams were gonna beat us.”
“I like that,” he continued. “I like when people talk and say things. I take that and use it to my advantage.”
As Illinois prepares to pivot to a loaded, 20-game Big Ten slate next week after Saturday’s game at Missouri, Curbelo is more confident than ever.
That comes from his own natural self-belief, but also from teammates and coaches who see his potential, and from playing on a team that looks set to compete for the Big Ten title.
Curbelo isn’t going to hold back, even as he occasionally makes mistakes that make Underwood want to rip his hair out.
The sample size is small, but Curbelo has shown he can make great things happen on the court. He could be one of the final pieces in Underwood’s rebuilding of the Illini into the powerhouse they were a decade and a half ago.
“I think we have big-time players who are going to make big-time plays to win every ballgame,” Curbelo said.