Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

Point guard depth paying off as IU basketball awaits Phinisee return in “another week or so”

Indiana is relatively healthy right now and has been throughout Mike Woodson’s first season in Bloomington.

After Trey Galloway returned from wrist surgery last month, the Hoosiers have had 12 or 13 scholarship players available for just about every game.

Of course the notable exception at this moment is Rob Phinisee, who is dealing with plantar fasciitis.  After Phinisee was unable to finish the Penn State game last week, Woodson said his senior point guard was “day-to-day” when it came to returning to the floor, but he was seen the next day at Maryland in a walking boot and getting around with a scooter.

His situation appeared to be a bit more serious than day-to-day, and for Phinisee IU’s week off is well timed.

“It (the week off) will give Rob a chance to catch up, and hopefully get back here in another week or so,” Woodson said on his radio show Monday night.

Fortunately for Indiana, Phinisee’s injury coincides with a run of very high level play by starter Xavier Johnson.

Over his last four games Johnson is averaging 14.8 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 turnovers, 1.5 steals and shooting 42.8 percent from three and 76.4 percent from the free throw line.

Johnson has 21 assists over the last three games, bumping his assist rate to 33.4 percent and No. 36 in the country.  In Big Ten games he is third in the league in assists per contest and seventh in assist to turnover-ratio.  It isn’t a stretch to say he is the best point guard in the conference right now.

Photo credit – IU Athletics

Woodson credits the improvement by Johnson to seeing the floor better and anticipating what is coming.

“He’s such a competitor,” Woodson said on Monday. … “He’s starting to see things before it develops, and that’s the key to being a great point guard, you’ve got to see it ahead of time, and put yourself in a position where guys around you are benefiting from what you see. … It’s nice to see the growth, because where he started to where he is today, he’s made major strides.”

Channeling Johnson’s aggressive style into something mostly positive for IU seemed like Woodson’s biggest challenge in his first year at the college level.  Johnson seems uniquely capable of pushing past negativity.  He was booed in Indianapolis when IU faced Notre Dame, only to return to that game and make some key plays late.

Now he is only hearing cheers from IU fans.  And when it comes to Johnson’s play of late, his head coach found religion.  He believes.

“Amen, I’ll take it,” Woodson said.

While having a four-year starter like Phinisee coming off the bench has been a luxury for Woodson, having a talent like Khristian Lander sitting third on the depth chart has been an embarrassment of riches for the first year head coach.

The defensive prowess of Johnson and Phinisee has made it difficult for Lander to crack the rotation, but he got a chance on Saturday at Maryland.

The second-year Evansville, Ind. product produced five points, one assist and one steal in 10 minutes off the bench during IU’s 68-55 win.

It was Lander’s first action since Dec. 22 against Northern Kentucky.  He has also been dealing with knee tendinitis and because of that was not in uniform for a couple January contests.

While he hasn’t seen extensive game action this season, Lander goes against Johnson and Phinisee in practice every day.  From a development standpoint, he couldn’t ask for a much greater opportunity.  Lander was asked how he has used the layoff from game action to improve.

“It was just learning, seeing what I could do when I got out on the floor,” Lander said after the Maryland game.

“My teammates have always kept putting confidence in me every day, and then when it’s my time to go, I’m ready.”

Lander reclassified and enrolled at Indiana as a 17-year-old last season.  He quickly lost confidence and struggled throughout the 2020-21 campaign.  His effort was by no means flawless at Maryland.  He had four fouls in 10 minutes and committed a turnover.

But watching Lander play a more physical brand of defense, make precision passes, and confidently step into a 3-pointer was enough to make you think a little patience might lead to a very positive outcome to his college career.

“He gave us some positive minutes,” Woodson said on Saturday of Lander.

And to Woodson’s good fortune of having not one but three capable point guards at the ready?

Can I get another Amen?

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