Andre Curbelo might make you shake your head, but he’s a plus Illinois can’t live without

The Illini — who face fifth-seeded Houston on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16 — are better off letting their No. 1 wild card run wild.

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Chattanooga v Illinois

Curbelo during the first around against Chattanooga.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — Andre Curbelo is terrible. He’s all show, no pro. Dude doesn’t roll out of bed until he has committed at least two turnovers. On the list of things that could sink Illinois’ NCAA Tournament run, the oft-hyped super-sub’s unruly style of play has to be items one, two and three.

At least that’s what the yammering yahoos in my inbox and on social media tell me.

What do they think they know? That Curbelo had a crummy game in the first round against Chattanooga. That his audacity leads to mistakes that make fans slap their foreheads in disbelief. That he was better as a freshman than he is as a sophomore.

What don’t they know? For one thing, Illinois had no chance to eke past the 13th-seeded Mocs on Friday without Curbelo on the floor for a season-high 30 minutes. Zip, zilch, nada. He shot 1-for-7, had six turnovers and — guess what? — finished with a plus/minus rating of 18 points to the good. In case that needs more explaining, the Illini outscored the Mocs by 18 with Curbelo on the floor and were outscored by 17 without him.

How the heck does that happen?

“He’s making other players better,” coach Brad Underwood said, “and then the fact that what he does defensively gets completely overshadowed. He was electric defensively, and that’s how you build a plus/minus pretty quick.”

This was no one-off. In the Big Ten tournament loss to Indiana, Curbelo was the only Illini guard with a positive plus/minus. In the regular-season finale against Iowa — a two-point win that nailed down a league co-championship — he was a plus-6 while starters Alfonso Plummer and Da’Monte Williams were in the red. In the huge win at Michigan, Curbelo led the team with a plus-17 over his 20 minutes.

Is plus/minus all-telling? Of course not. But it’s a heck of an argument that the Illini — who face fifth-seeded Houston on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16 — are better off letting their No. 1 wild card run wild whether the aforementioned yahoos can handle it or not.

“I just stay true to myself,” Curbelo said. “I know who I am, I know the player I am, and I could really care less what people have to say. They’re just on social media. They’re never going to come up to my face and say it. I know the player I am, and I will continue to do my thing.”

That “thing” is what lately has been making some orange-and-blue blood boil.

“I take high-risk plays,” he said, “but I think that’s what separates me from other guards, maybe. Like everybody says, it’s sometimes good, sometimes bad. … I’m going to continue to be who I am on and off the floor always.”

On it, Curbelo draws strong reactions. Off it, he has the makings of a tournament darling. Proverbially speaking, some athletes try to win the press conference. On a practice day at PPG Paints Arena, Curbelo crushed it without even trying.

First, he brought a piping-hot chicken sandwich to the podium for a press conference with Kofi Cockburn, Williams and Underwood. It might not sound like much, but it’s basically unheard-of to eat at these things, like bringing a pizza to a job interview. In between answers, cameras on him, Curbelo feasted like nobody was watching.

Someone wanted to know where he’d gotten it.

“From the NCAA,” he said, mouth full of bird.

Curbelo interrupted the moderator at one point with a request to ask a question of his own. He directed it at a reporter who was transcribing the interview.

“Are you typing without looking?” Curbelo inquired, shock and awe in his eyes.

“Oh, yeah,” the reporter replied. “That’s like you making a no-look pass.”

There were laughs all around as Curbelo tipped his invisible cap with a flourish.

But there was substance, too, along with a sense that Curbelo has no trouble looking inward and just might be an open book. On the subject of his defense, which Underwood describes in superlative terms, Curbelo was refreshingly honest.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played this much defense in my life,” he said. “Back in Puerto Rico, no defense at all. In high school, as a freshman [at Illinois], no defense, either. I just kind of had to work my way up. Last year, I kind of did a little bit. But this year, I’ve been taking that assignment more serious and I’ve been talking about doing whatever it takes to win the ballgame. If that’s got to be straight defense and five points, six turnovers, I’m OK with that.”

But why should everyone else be OK with that?

“Because,” he said, “at the end of the day? Plus-18.”

It’s kind of the whole point.

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