IU coach Archie Miller has been impressed with how freshman Rob Phinisee has responded since being thrust into the starting lineup.
Jim Ayello, firstname.lastname@example.org
BLOOMINGTON — Be it the first games of the season or the last play against Penn State, Robert Phinisee has made a habit of coming through when the Hoosiers need him most.
When Devonte Green and Zach McRoberts went down with injuries and IU’s backcourt depth was stretched thin, it has been Phinisee who’s stepped in to plug the hole.
Gallery: IU visits Penn State
And when the Nittany Lions came roaring back to life Tuesday night and threatened to steal a win away from the Hoosiers, it was Phinisee who stepped into a passing lane, deflected the ball and kept Penn State from getting off a game-tying shot.
There’s little doubt, Archie Miller said, Phinisee has impressed in the first nine games of the season. But he’s also capable of so much more.
On the Friday afternoon ahead of Indiana’s highly anticipated matchup against Louisville, the Hoosiers coach wasn’t all that interested in reliving Phinisee’s mostly exceptional start to his collegiate career. He was more keen to talk about what Phinisee could be doing better.
It starts with his aggression — or lack there of. Over the past few weeks, Miller has hounded Phinisee when he thinks his freshman is playing it safe. While there have been moments when the McCutcheon star has attacked the way Miller desires — the Marquette game (12 points, eight assists) and the second half against Penn State (10 of his 12 points) stand out — they have been too few and far between.
“We’re just trying to get Rob to be a lot more aggressive,” Miller said. “Don’t play it as safe. Sometimes when you play it as safe, the ball sticks a little bit, and we’re trying to get Rob, in particular, to move the ball, to make guys better. Obviously when he attacks the paint, that’s his best ability is attacking north-south.”
Miller also would like to see Phinisee shoot it more. He’s a solid marksman, Miller said, but few people outside Assembly Hall would know it. While his strength lies in his ability to attack the paint and break down defenses, he’d blossom into a far more potent offensive force if he could prove to opponents that he owns an outside shot worthy of their respect. Having drained only one 3-pointer (on six attempts) in his past five games, Phinisee has yet to earn that respect.
“I’m hoping that moving forward,” Miller said, “he can be a guy we count on from behind the 3-point line.”
Despite Miller’s calls for improvement, it would be unfair to say Phinisee’s sturdy early-season efforts have gone unnoticed or underappreciated. While Miller spoke more about where Phinisee can get better, he didn’t stop short of paying the young guard some compliments.
“He’s going against seniors, he’s going against good systems, he’s going against really good players,” Miller said. “He’s a freshman getting a lot of minutes in high-intensity games. It’s not like he’s getting cupcakes out there. Rob’s done a good job.
“Some early season injuries have thrust him into a big role, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity.”
Outside of his clutch play, among Phinisee’s biggest contributions has been his ability to take care of the basketball. In a season that has gotten off to a promising start (7-2, 2-0 Big Ten), turnovers have been the Hoosiers’ biggest bugaboo. Their 15.6 turnovers per game lead all Big Ten teams and while they haven’t proved too costly yet, they represent the quickest path for the Hoosiers’ to run their season off the rails.
However, Phinisee could be the player who prevents that from happening. In the past two games, he has turned the ball over just three times despite playing more than 57 minutes. Meanwhile, his season assist-to-turnover ratio stands at a team-best 2.2.
That’s not to say Phinisee has been immune to Indiana’s ball security problems. In Duke’s thrashing of the Hoosiers, Phinisee coughed up the ball four times — the second most on the team. Still, Phinisee has shown improvement, and Miller wouldn’t be calling on him to be more aggressive and take more shots if he didn’t the trust the young guard with the ball in his hands.
Miller believes in Phinisee. His teammates do, too.
“He’s done a good job running the team,” sophomore guard Al Durham said. “He’s been very effective and very efficient. For being a freshman, he’s doing a great job.”
IU coach Archie Miller says Hoosiers are excited to play another quality non-conference game this early in the season.
Jim Ayello, email@example.com
INDIANA VS. LOUISVILLE
Tipoff: 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Assembly Hall.
TV/Radio: FOX/WIBC-93.1 FM.
Follow IndyStar Sports reporter Jim Ayello on Twitter and Facebook: @jimayello.