Indiana currently ranks No. 11 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per the Kenpom ratings. They also rank No. 2 nationally in defensive field goal percentage at 35 percent. One of the key aspects of the stingy is Indiana’s ability to put pressure on the ball.
And no one does that better for IU than Rob Phinisee.
Known as one of the better on-ball defenders in the Big Ten, Hoosiers assistant coach Dane Fife was able to witness firsthand how Phinisee can impact a game.
“I’ve always respected him (Rob) back when he used to whip us when I was Michigan State. He single-handedly beat us two or three games, he took Cassius Winston right out of the game,” said Fife on Monday night.
“I go back to those games when he took an NBA guard out of the game, exerting his will and overwhelming him, and that’s the Rob I want to see.”
Fife saw that Phinisee again on Saturday, as the Lafayette, Ind. native displayed his strengths against Notre Dame. Phinisee played a key role in holding the explosive Blake Wesley to 5-of-16 shooting from the field and three turnovers while adding a steal for himself.
“That’s my big thing the coaches emphasize with me when I come in the game to try and pick up the energy on the defensive end,” said Phinisee. “So, whether it’s picking guys up full court to try to dictate their offense to get them out of their sets. That’s the big thing I want to do when I come in the game.”
Coming into the season, the coaching staff knew what they had in Phinisee on the defensive end, but they challenged him to be more aggressive on offense. They want him to call his own number and create shots for himself.
The senior has shown glimpses of that throughout this season, but it was most evident in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday. Although the shots weren’t falling the way Phinisee expected as he shot 2-of-8 from the field, he was aggressive.
When his man went under a screen, Phinisee made him pay by nailing a pull-up three. Another time, Phinisee drove the lane, attracting defenders before jump-stopping and finding Trayce Jackson-Davis for the alley-oop. He did it once more but this time found Race Thompson for the easy layup.
Then the former four-star recruit made one of the most crucial baskets in the game. After tracking down the loose ball for an offensive rebound, Phinisee set himself on the wing for a catch and shoot three with the shot clock winding down. It extended the Hoosier lead to five with under five minutes left in the game. He finished with six points, five assists, five rebounds, and converted 2-of-3 three-point attempts in 25 minutes off the bench.
It was the kind of performance from a veteran guard that if delivered on a consistent basis, can help take this team to the NCAA Tournament.
And his head coach knows it.
“I need Rob in the worst way. I think he knows how I feel about him in terms of what I think he can do. I just got to get Rob to believe more that he can do things like he did tonight,” Woodson said after the Notre Dame game.
“I mean, he is a hell of a defender, and he can make shots. He can make plays for other people. That’s what point guards do. I just got to get him more comfortable and get him more love and confidence that he can do those things.”
After suffering a calf injury against St. John’s, Phinisee missed three games. He has been working his way back to full health while figuring out his new role as the team’s sixth man.
“I just have to take it game by game,” Phinisee said. “I feel like I’ve slowly progressed the past two or three games just being aggressive. Whether it’s not even scoring, whether it’s getting into the paint, getting more assists. I feel like I’ve had a couple lobs to Trayce in the past two three games, so just getting downhill and creating for each other.”
While he is making positive contributions in a lot of areas, Phinisee’s major shortcoming throughout his college career has been a lack of offensive efficiency. That has continued to be the case this year as he has produced career lows in overall field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage to this point.
Wavering confidence has been a challenge during his time at IU. Maybe his clutch late game three against Notre Dame will fuel a senior-year resurgence?
It might, but Phinisee has been around long enough to know he has to stack solid performances to really get things rolling.
“I know I’m not going to get it fully back in one game,” he said.
The next opportunity comes on Wednesday evening when Indiana (9-2) host Northern Kentucky (7 p.m. Eastern / BTN).
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