Rob Phinisee is returning to his hometown on Thursday night.
But for Indiana, it’s Phinisee’s return to form defending the ball that is making waves inside the IU basketball program.
“I’m really proud of his defensive effort here of late, especially these last couple games, I think he’s been really, really good, head coach Archie Miller said of his sophomore point guard at a media availability on Wednesday afternoon.
“For where we are heading as a team, for Rob, it’s about, you know, really spearheading our defense and being a guy we can count on defensively.”
After standing out as a freshman with his ability to move laterally guarding the basketball, there was a general sense that Indiana could be a good defensive team with Phinisee at the top of the resistance. Prior to the season he spoke about the expectations that he has for himself guarding the ball.
“I take pride in it a lot,” Phinisee said in September. “I always want to be the best player I can be. If I’m the best on-ball defender in the league, country, whatever it is, I’m going to try to be it.”
While he’s been an exceptional defender on the court, Phinisee hasn’t had much luck guarding against health issues off of it. The 6-foot-1 guard started the season with an abdominal issue, and subsequent maladies included a rib issue, a blow to the face, strep throat and a sprained ankle.
At one point Miller seemed desperate for solutions to keep his starting point guard healthy.
“Like I told him after the game, grab five Advil, get a piece of tape and tape them all over your body because maybe that’s the only thing we can do is tape it to him and he can absorb it, I don’t know,” Miller said after a Nov. 25 game against Louisiana Tech.
Phinisee only played in four of IU’s first nine games, and although the Lafayette product has not missed a game since, there has been some thought that his abdominal injury might be lingering. Before the season Miller described the issue as something that Phinisee was going to have to deal with, and until recently his play on the defensive end seemingly hasn’t been up to the standard that he set for himself.
With Phinisee now rounding into form on the defensive end, it should come as no surprise that so too is Indiana.
The Hoosiers have allowed just .83 and .86 points per possession in their last two games, wins over Minnesota and Penn State. Those are the third and fourth best performances against high major competition this season by IU based on that measure.
And it has been the elevated level of intensity on the ball from Phinisee that has been the driving force in the improved play on the defensive end for Indiana.
“I think here of late, especially this past week, I’m really proud of his effort level defensively,” Miller said. “He played a really solid game against (Minnesota’s) Marcus Carr on Wednesday and then again this past weekend when we played Penn State, he was an impact on the defensive side of the ball, five steals and five defensive rebounds.”
With things trending in the right direction, Miller sees defense as the foundation for his team down the stretch.
“Our defense, to me, is the whole key as we finish the season,” Miller said after the win over Penn State. “If you’re great defensively, you’re going to have a chance.
“I think collectively we’re starting to know and understand that the identity of the team has to be defense first.”
While a defense first mentality makes sense for a group that has been inconsistent on the offensive end, Miller also likes the growth that he is seeing in Phinisee scoring the basketball.
Of course Phinisee’s freshman season was also impacted by health issues, as a concussion forced him to miss a few games and continued to impact him during several others after he returned.
Whether due to the concussion or otherwise, Miller saw a freshman who couldn’t get comfortable last season.
“I thought last year at this time of year Rob was really struggling with mind-set offensively,” Miller said. “He struggled with that injury and whatnot. I think if you look at his shooting percentages a year ago, he was getting baited to shoot. I think he played that way at certain times last season where he was a little tentative.”
Phinisee is averaging just seven points per game, but at 35.8 percent he is nearly five percentage points better this year shooting three pointers.
“I think Rob is a very willing right now offensive player to be aggressive, especially with his shot. He’s a much improved shooter, Miller said.”
While Phinisee has the ability to score, as the point guard he knows that his first responsibility is to run the show and take care of the ball. With a better than two-to-one assist to turnover ratio over the last three games, Phinisee is doing just that.
“I think he understands right now, it’s about running our team and it’s about making sure that we’re taking care of the ball, and he knows when he has his opportunities, you know, offensively, to be aggressive, he can do that, but he’s playing pretty good basketball for us right now,” Miller said.
Phinisee would no doubt like to put up a lot of points and have a big day on the offensive end back in Lafayette on Thursday night.
He will surely have plenty of friends and family on hand supporting him.
But there will be several thousand fans in the stands singing a much more adversarial tune.
That’s where defense comes in. Shots may or may not fall in raucous venues like Purdue’s Mackey Arena. But defense, with the right mindset, can travel.
And Miller knows another strong defensive effort from Phinisee will be the key to slowing down the Boilermaker attack.
“We’re going to need him to really finish strong on that end of the floor because I think your defense starts with your perimeter pressure and our pressure in the three out of our last four games has been outstanding and he’s been a big reason why,” Miller said.
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