Michigan State had IU right where it wanted them, down a point with the ball in the hands of their All-American point guard for their final possession.
Indiana freshman Rob Phinisee fought through a high ball screen and then found himself isolated one-on-one with Cassius Winston as the Spartans’ star drove right from the top of the key.
With a mesmerizing display of lateral quickness, Phinisee directed Winston to the corner, and forced a tightly contested 15-foot step-back baseline jump shot that fell harmlessly off the rim and secured a 63-62 Indiana upset of No. 5 Michigan State in 2019.
The play happened right in front of the Michigan State bench and their assistant coach Dane Fife.
“Thanks for bringing that up,” Fife said sarcastically on Tuesday when reminded of the moment.
Sitting on the opposing bench at his alma mater, Fife knows that play well. And he also knows the player who hounded Winston that day well. Fife has game planned and coached against Phinisee five times over the last three years, and the new IU assistant coach sees an elite level defender, at least sometimes.
“I don’t think there’s a better defender in the league than Rob Phinisee,” Fife said.
In part due to Phinisee’s play at the top of the defense, IU won three straight over Michigan State during the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
But Fife saw something different from Phinisee from the Spartans’ bench in 2021 as Michigan State swept IU and turned around its season while the Hoosiers crumbled.
“We beat them last year because Rob Phinisee didn’t hawk the ball like he did (in the prior years),” Fife said with smirk befitting of a coach now on a mission.
That’s been the story with Phinisee through three years in Bloomington. Amazing moments, elite plays on both ends at times, and head-scratching inconsistency no doubt at least in part due to a wave of injuries and ailments.
Another variable in Phinisee’s up and down career has been a wavering level of confidence, and that is something Fife can relate to very well.
Over his first three seasons in Bloomington, Fife only connected on 27 percent of his 3-point attempts, a couple percentage points below Phinisee’s current career 29.8 percent rate from behind the arc. Despite his struggles on the offensive end, Fife earned a reputation as a lock-down defender early in his career, and that allowed him to start 72 times over those first three seasons.
As IU’s best on the ball defender, Phinisee has similarly started 69 times since he arrived in Bloomington in the fall of 2018 despite his erratic performance shooting the basketball.
“My personal story is a lot like Phinisee’s,” Fife said. “Defense is his niche, and he can make money doing it if he really puts his mind to it. And he will get confidence if he plays good defense.”
“I lasted four years with crappy offense and I still played a lot of minutes and it worked out for me in the end,” Fife joked. “I got a little bit of offensive confidence, I could actually dribble the ball.”
Fife did more than just dribble as a senior. The Clarkston, Mich. native shot 47.8 percent from long range, a single season effort that ranks tenth all-time at IU, and a stark contrast to his first three seasons. But the gritty guard was also named the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the year in his final campaign with the Hoosiers, and Fife hopes Phinisee can find offense through his defense in much the same way. In fact, helping Phinisee have a Fife-like senior season is a priority for the new IU assistant coach.
“That’s one of my first objectives coming here. Stella figured out how to get her groove back. We’ve got to figure out how to get Rob Phinisee to get his groove back,” Fife said.
While he likes to keep things light, Fife has always had a toughness element to him. As the son of an old school high school basketball coach and a star football player, it was not by chance that he was drawn to Bob Knight’s Indiana program as a McDonald’s All-American basketball recruit.
As a player Fife once bit Iowa’s Duez Henderson on the forearm, and he pulled an Illinois player to the floor by his ankle. And those were just the moments that the cameras caught.
Ten years spent under a throwback, tough-minded coach like Tom Izzo has done nothing to diminish Fife’s gritty mentality. Now his mission is to instill that toughness into a player who he has seen firsthand change games with nothing more than a determination to not get beat. Fife knows that same mindset he saw in 2019 is still within his former foe turned pupil. Now he has to find a way to bring it out of Phinisee on an every day basis.
“When I think about the toughness, the competitive feature that Indiana basketball should always have, as it relates to this team, it’s Rob Phinisee,” Fife said. “We’ve got to get Rob Phinisee back to being an NBA type defender, he’s that good.”
Known best as a defensive coach during his time in East Lansing, Fife said head coach Mike Woodson has already asked him to bring some of the Michigan State principles to Bloomington. And for as long as the Spartans have been in the upper echelon of the Big Ten under Izzo, they’ve always had great on the ball defense at the point guard position.
Fife knows getting Phinisee’s mind right is one of the keys to getting his alma mater right. And it starts with defense.
“He’s the leader up front on your first line of defense, and if his mind is elsewhere, your defense is going to struggle,” Fife said. “The first line of defense, that’s something where pride comes into play. If you don’t have someone up there who takes it personal when someone on the other team scores like I think a Rob Phinisee does, then that’s a problem.”
If he can help Phinisee regain his edge on defense, Fife hopes that will allow him to think a little less on the other end.
Phinisee scored over 2,000 points during his high school career and averaged 29.4 points per game as a senior at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette. The potential is there to have a breakout fourth season on the offensive end like Fife.
But as was always the case with Fife at IU, for Phinisee, it has to start with defense.
“We’ve gotta get him back, because to me he’s the best defender in the Big Ten,” Fife said.
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