PITTSBURGH — Over the weekend, Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena played host to a number of intense games in the first and second rounds of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
While eight teams entered the region, only two — Houston and Villanova — left the city still in the tournament. The crowds in Pittsburgh saw star-studded performances from players such as Ohio State’s Malaki Branham, Houston’s Taze Moore, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie, and more. However, out of the six teams that were eliminated, one team, Illinois, was probably the biggest disappointment of the weekend.
The fourth-seeded Illini — loaded with talented shooters in Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier, a lead point guard in Andre Curbelo, a First Team All-American big in Kofi Cockburn, and a solid supporting cast — won an ugly matchup over Chattanooga on day one and lost to Houston on Sunday.
Cockburn played terrific basketball inside, scoring 17 and 19 points in the two games, respectively. Plummer shot the ball well in game one, scoring 15 points and hitting the game-winning free throws in the last minute. Frazier, not so much. One of the top five leading scorers in Illinois’ program history, he scored a combined ten points in the two games in Pittsburgh, going 2 for 13 from the field.
And lastly, Curbelo.
“I think it starts with Illinois continuing to try to overcome the early-season injury to Andre Curbelo, who had been projected to be their starting point guard.” bracketologist Mike DeCourcy told PSN ahead of the tournament. “He was injured early in the year and missed about six weeks. It’s like losing a quarterback in football. All that time, if you have Aaron Rodgers, and he’s out for six weeks, then you have to play with Jordan Love for six weeks. It’s a different chemistry. Everything is different. There is only one Aaron Rodgers, and believe me, there is only one Andre Curbelo in college basketball. He’s the most creative player in this tournament by far.”
Against Chattanooga, Curbelo played 30 minutes, scoring five points, dishing out four assists, and turning the ball over a game-high six times. While the stat line doesn’t look too solid, Curbelo’s ability to penetrate the Mocs’ defense led to some big buckets in the comeback effort, and he ended up finishing the game with a team high +/- of +18.
In the game against Houston, Curbelo played ten minutes in the first half. He went 0-4 from the field and missed both of his three-point attempts. He finished with zero points, one assist, and two turnovers, and the Illini were closer and closer to getting sent home.
Curbelo walked next to Kofi on the way off the floor at half and apologized to him. Said something along the lines of the second half will be better. Kofi put his arm around him and gave him a squeeze.
— Steve Greenberg (@SLGreenberg) March 20, 2022
However, the second half was not better. Not for Illinois, and not for Curbelo personally. Head coach Brad Underwood didn’t play Curbelo in the second half, and he watched his mysterious sophomore season come to an end from the bench.
After the game, Underwood was asked, ‘What went into Andre [Curbelo] not playing in the second half?’
“Coach’s decision,” Underwood said, moving on to the next question.
Pitt was in on Curbelo back in 2019-20 prior to his commitment to Illinois. Jeff Capel was noted to have a solid relationship with the guard, although Pitt didn’t make his top five. And now, the Panthers will be targeting true point guards, like Curbelo, in the portal this offseason.
Whether or not he enters is one question, but if he does, will Capel reach out? Curbelo’s magic from the point guard position has been spectacular at times, and he may be Pitt’s answer at the one if so.