Photo by Craig Bisacre/Indiana Athletics

Indiana Basketball: Rob Phinisee is the “X Factor” on this Team

You were probably skeptical at the time he said it, but now it seems clear.  Something changed after that forgettable game in Minnesota.

Indiana head coach Archie Miller promised “drastic changes” coming out of that blowout loss to the Gophers, and while a couple more losses followed, few would argue against the notion that the Hoosiers have been a different team in the ensuing games.

What has been the secret?  Better effort?  Yes.  Better togetherness on defense?  Yes.

But it was something that Miller said on Wednesday at a media availability in advance of Thursday’s game at Illinois that stood out.

Speaking of freshman point guard Rob Phinisee’s full recovery back to his early season form, the second year Indiana head coach said this —

“Probably his last four games defensively he’s been back, he’s been himself,” Miller said.  “He’s impacted our team immensely here in the last four games.  You start to see the difference in our team and what it means when our team is defending well and playing hard.  Well he’s a big part of that.

Here in general, the last few games, the last couple weeks he’s back to where he was.”

More than just a defensive presence, this is where Phinisee was back in December.

In a cruel twist of fate in a season full of them, Phinisee suffered a concussion in the first half of the very next game after that Butler game winner back in December.

The Lafayette native would miss more than three weeks, but you weren’t wrong if it seemed like even longer than that before he was fully back to his old self.

Beyond Miller suggesting the “Old Rob” had not fully returned until recently, Phinisee himself revealed some of the challenges he had to contend with.  He told Don Fischer this on the January 28th edition of his radio show when asked whether the concussion set him back —

“Yeah, it did actually,” Phinisee said.  “It’s annoying not remembering everything like you usually do and concentrating.  Just getting back in rhythm, it really set me back.”

Phinisee went on to say that it wasn’t until late January that he even felt normal.   That’s not basketball normal.  That’s just functioning normal.

The setbacks continued.

Miller revealed that in the week leading up to the Minnesota game, Phinisee had missed five days with the flu, because, well, this season has just been cruel.

Miller seemed to indicate that it wasn’t until the February 19th game against Purdue that his freshman point was 100 percent physically back.  He and his teammates held All-American guard Carsen Edwards to a 4-for-24 shooting night in that one.

It was perhaps even later than that for Phinisee to be fully mentally back.  After enduring a serious shot to the head it can understandably take a while before you are fully willing to lay your body on the line again.

Miller said this after the win over Wisconsin last week —

“We’re playing extremely hard right now. Rob Phinisee is playing as good of a perimeter defense as you can probably play as a freshman in this league. He’s doing it in a lot of minutes tonight. We’ve started to see the old Rob come back here a little bit in terms of his aggressiveness.”

Aggressiveness.  Attacking the rim.  Laying out for loose balls.  Fighting through screens.  All the kind of physical contact things you would want to avoid if you were coming off of a serious concussion.

Phinisee has finally gotten over the hump somewhere here in the last couple weeks.  And it is no coincidence that his team has risen from the ashes.

If you accept that it wasn’t at least until the second Purdue game that Phinisee was fully recovered, then consider this:

Indiana is 11-4 with a fully healthy Rob Phinisee, and 4-10 without him.  They are 4-2 in the Big Ten with him, 2-10 without him.

That’s including that game at Iowa — that Phinisee didn’t even finish.

If you need further confirmation of Phinisee’s effectiveness in that game in Iowa City and his importance to this team, recall this — Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon had just three points with a few minutes left in the game.  Phinisee suffered what appeared to be a lower leg injury, left the game, and Bohannon exploded.

Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

On the offensive end of the floor, the numbers also seem to clearly suggest that Phinisee wasn’t himself until recently.

In those 15 games (first 11/last 4) where he was 100 percent, Phinisee has averaged 7.8 points on 42% from the field to go with 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game.  In the other 10 games that he played he averaged just 5.3 points per game on 27% from the field to go with 1.6 assists and .9 steals.

A fairly dramatic difference that illustrates what both Miller and Phinisee have said — while playing, he wasn’t fully back.

While the offensive production is important, what really makes this unheralded recruit so important to this team?  Defense.

If you understand the pack-line scheme that Miller uses, then you realize there is no more critical player than the head-of-the-monster, or the guy defending the ball.

Miller saw he had something special very early on with the Lafayette native —

“You won’t find very many freshman as good as him defensively and it started really on day one,” Miller said. “We learned early in the season that he was going to be a capable guy.”

It started very early when you got to watch him play against Markus Howard and Marquette.  He’s very strong and sturdy and confident in his abilities.”

Just how good does Miller, a former high level point guard himself, believe his freshman point guard is defensively on the ball?

“You add in the experience that he’s now gotten with minutes and you add in the confidence that he has, and he’s a guy right now that’s as good as any on the ball and dealing with somebody one-on-one, he’s as good as there is, I think in our league, mind you the age, but as a freshman that’s impressive,” Miller said.

Playing point guard in the pack-line means you are going to be injected into a never ending game of bumper cars.  A veritable hell for a kid with a concussion.

Phinisee’s recovery was never going to be tested more than playing against Michigan State and Cassius Winston.

“Well, they probably set as many screens for him (Winston) as any player you’re going to guard, so when you’re guarding him, you’re getting nailed. I mean, you’re getting nailed for 40 minutes. I thought Rob’s on-ball defense was great,” Miller said.

Phinisee was up to the challenge against a likely first team All-American in Winston.  Not only did he come up with the two final stops of the game, he also had the awareness to use an available foul when Winston got a step on him.  Physically and mentally, Phinisee was all there, and likely saved the game — and this season.

Things won’t get any easier down the stretch.  With Indiana squarely on the NCAA bubble, the Hoosiers have no margin for error.

But the good news is that this Indiana team is as healthy as they have been all year — and that includes their ultra-important point guard.

On Monday night Miller said that “It’s good to see Phinisee’s finishing how he started.”

If the Hoosiers are going to back their way into the tournament, the team is going to have to continue to get back to winning and finish this crazy season how it started.

And it seems they now have just the guy they need back to make it happen.

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