After four abnormal years in Bloomington that included a season that was cut short due to a pandemic, Rob Phinisee has decided that he will forgo what would have been his senior night festivities.
The point guard has not yet made a decision regarding his future, and he will wait until after the season to do so. It only makes sense considering the limitless options with the transfer portal and another year of eligibility due to Covid-19. However, right now, there is only one goal on his and the rest of the team’s mind: Getting into the NCAA Tournament.
“I know I’ve never been in the NCAA Tournament, and no one on the team has been there, so, we’ve just been locked in and I’m just trying to carry this two game winning streak and keep winning,” Phinisee said on Tuesday.
The senior from Lafayette, with junior eligibility, returned to action against Minnesota on Sunday after missing seven games with a plantar fasciitis injury. Although he played in just nine minutes, Phinisee seemed back to his normal self.
Within minutes of entering the game, he smartly gave up an open three-point look and elected to drive the lane to get into the paint untouched for an easy layup. It was his first points since Jan. 23, against Michigan. In the second half, he came off a ball-screen and pulled-up from deep for a three.
In limited minutes, Phinisee finished with eight points on three-of-six shooting. It was the first live-action of any kind for him since the injury. During rehab, all he could do was rest, ice his heel, stretch, and get more rest before he was fed to the wolves. Or in this case, the Gophers.
“That was actually a really big confidence booster for me. Just because I didn’t do any practices or see any live practice or anything. So, I was kinda thrown into the fire,” Phinisee said of his return.
“I feel like I did a pretty good job and I felt better than I expected out there. I’m really working my way back, but I’ll be at full-strength soon.”
When it comes to primary ball-handling duties, the Hoosiers have been bitten by the injury bug over the last month. Khristian Lander missed a couple of games and his status is still up in the air with a leg injury. Trey Galloway– who briefly assumed the point guard role– is out with a high-groin pull and his return is to be determined.
Recently, the team has had to lean heavily on Xavier Johnson.
Johnson has had some inconsistent performances, but has played great the last two games. He is coming off back-to-back 24-point performances during which he made 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. However, his coach thinks that the return of Phinisee should give him an added boost.
“It frees X (avier Johnson) up a lot more because he knows now he can stay aggressive. We got away with it in the Maryland game. X picked up two fouls early. And we really had nowhere else to go,” head coach Mike Woodson said of how the return of Phinisee helps Johnson.
Before the injury, Woodson was utilizing both Johnson and Phinisee in the same lineup during crunch time. The pair formed Indiana’s best defensive back court and were able to close out multiple wins.
In fact, when they are both on the floor the team is arguably at its best. According to data at EvanMiya.com, the Phinisee-Johnson duo is IU’s best two-man combination with at least 100 possessions together in terms of adjusted efficiency margin (i.e. offensive efficiency less defensive efficiency).
While the numbers benefit from a relatively weak nonconference slate, when Phinisee plays, the Hoosiers hold a 13-5 record. They are 4-6 when he doesn’t play.
“I mean, it’s huge. Rob has missed ten games. And we went through a stretch where we were close in games with Rob and X on the floor — and winning, which was kind of nice. But I haven’t been able to get back to that here of late because Rob has been out,” added Woodson.
After seeing action for the first time in about a month on Sunday, Phinisee will still be worked into the lineup slowly. But, expect to see him play more minutes against Rutgers.
It is March, and the Hoosiers still lie on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. So are the Scarlet Knights. Many experts see this game as a potential play-in game to get into the tournament. However, all the projections from these experts have just been used as motivation for this team.
“We definitely see it. We send things in a group message just like a motivation type of thing, that we have to lock in if we really make the tournaments for everything,” said Phinisee of paying attention to the bracket projections.
“We just have to take it game-by-game at this point. So, every game really matters and we just have to focus in on the scout and just make sure we’re locked in on what the coaches tell us to do.”
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