Phinisee ahead of the curve

It wasn’t what Juwan Morgan expected to see, at least not from a freshman.

Make no mistake, Indiana’s senior forward had high expectations for the program’s newcomers, a heralded class tasked with helping the Hoosiers regain their footing on a national stage. But even Morgan was taken aback by what he saw this summer.

That started with Robert Phinisee.

In a signing class headlined by blue-chip recruit Romeo Langford, Phinisee wasn’t even the second-highest ranked member of the group. That status belonged to versatile wing Jerome Hunter, a rangy scorer whose college debut has so far been delayed by injury.

But during the offseason in Bloomington, none of the newcomers impressed IU’s co-captain quite like Phinisee. His reads were crisp, as if he’d been running the offense for years. His pace, too, was in lockstep with the others around him.

“He just pretty much got it as soon as he came in,” Morgan said.

That was no accident.

After committing to Indiana in August 2017, Phinisee approached his senior year of high school with one eye on the team he’d lead at McCutcheon and the other he’d join a year later at Indiana.

Between games and practices with the Mavericks, Phinisee studied the Hoosiers and how they operated under then-first-year coach Archie Miller. He closely watched IU games on television and made regular trips from Lafayette to Bloomington to check out his future teammates in games and practices, too.

“He really paid attention,” Miller said.

Phinisee did his homework, and it’s going to good use now.

Through a combination of injuries and hard work, Phinisee seized control of IU’s point guard position at the end of the preseason. This week, he completed his first month of college basketball as the Hoosiers’ starter in each of their first seven games of the season.

It was a rapid ascent of the depth chart, albeit one that Phinisee was always intent on making. For years, Phinisee has seemingly operated ahead of the learning curve, and while his early command of IU’s point guard role may be surprising, it’s merely the latest example of a young man who has made a habit of surfacing early and surpassing expectations.

“That’s just his mentality,” Phinisee’s older brother, Charles, said. “He’s always had this level of poise and confidence from a young age. He’s always had to step into a big role as a young guy. Him doing that has given him a lot of attributes that have contributed to his game and the true point guard he is right now.”

The third of Tanika Phinisee’s four boys, Robert learned from a young age how to adapt and adjust. As a mere third-grader, Robert was playing in a fifth-grade league with Charles.

Whether he was on the court or off of it, Robert tagged along with an older crowd. Charles’ friends were Robert’s, too, and the influence of bigger, older boys helped Robert mature at a rapid rate.

“The one thing that I definitely instilled in them was brotherhood and support of each other,” Tanika Phinisee said.

Rick Peckinpaugh coached each of Tanika’s three oldest sons — Alantae Crawford, Charles and Robert — at McCutcheon before retiring at the end of Robert’s junior season.

He saw up close how the tight-knit dynamics of the Phinisee family helped shape Robert into an up-and-coming college prospect from an early age. Even when Robert was young, he didn’t play like it.

“They didn’t ever take it easy on him,” Peckinpaugh said. “They made him work for everything he got. I think he looked up to his older brothers because they were hard workers, too, and great athletes in their own right. They made Robert what he is, partly because they were never easy on him. They were out there playing and challenging him to make sure he was trying to do his best.”

Peckinpaugh was at the controls for Phinisee’s breakout performance as a high school freshman in 2014, when the young guard first asserted himself at the varsity level.

During a mid-December game against Logansport, McCutcheon found itself trailing by 18 points during the first half. Peckinpaugh inserted Phinisee, then the junior varsity point guard, in the second quarter and, in a matter of minutes, the Mavericks quickly found their deficit dwindling with Phinisee’s help.

He notched a couple steals, drove to the rim at will and set up others around him. McCutcheon went on to win that game, 65-59, and from there, Phinisee never came out of the varsity lineup.

“He just wreaked havoc on their point guard. He really inspired the whole team,” Peckinpaugh said. “You didn’t think he could do what he did as a freshman in high school. So what he’s doing right now doesn’t surprise me.”

Phinisee further enhanced his game as a senior at McCutcheon, bending his skill set to fit the needs of his team. Last winter, the Mavericks needed scoring and Phinisee extended himself beyond the limitations of a pass-first guard.

He became a volume scorer, averaging 29.4 points per game, while shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the 3-point line. The scoring numbers punctuated a robust senior stat line that also included 6.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 3.7 steals per contest.

“He just kind of willed us to a lot of wins,” McCutcheon coach Tyler Scherer said. “His shot improved more from his junior year to his senior year, and obviously he could get to the basket and score. He provided whatever we would need and was just such a good facilitator.

“… His passing is underrated in the way he delivers it right into the shooting pocket for guys on time and on target to where they can get those shots off. We used to joke around like, ‘Wait till he’s throwing the ball to other Division I talents. How much better is he going to make them?’ Because he really made our high school players last year so much better just because he got them the ball in the right spots.”

That, too, has been Phinisee’s objective at Indiana. To follow through on his mission, Phinisee knew last year that he needed more than a fundamental understanding of Indiana’s roster and the way his future Hoosier teammates operated under Miller.

So he dedicated a substantial amount of time last winter to watching Indiana games and practices to gain an advantage. Multiple trips to Bloomington also allowed for more detailed interactions.

“Every time I did I tried to pay attention to what they were doing in the game,” Phinisee said, “(watching) how each coach was coaching the players during the games.”

At the same time, Phinisee was picturing himself in the same huddles, working with the same core Indiana players.

“He was setting himself up for this (season), even as a high school senior,” Scherer said. “He was very well-schooled in what IU was doing, who was playing well for them and that’s paying off now. There were times when Coach Miller and (assistant coach Bruiser) Flint would be talking to Rob early on last fall like, ‘Hey, here are the things we’re doing offensively.’

“I just think he was like a sponge, soaking all that up. He was just really consumed with not only having a great senior year at McCutcheon High School, which he did, but also taking the little steps necessary to know his teammates and what kinds of situations he was getting into. How does IU like to play? These returning players, what are they best at? He was studying all those things last year and I think you’re seeing him being able to step into a situation where he doesn’t look like a freshman playing his first season.”

There have been some growing pains, such as Tuesday’s game at Duke. In a pressure-packed environment, against a national championship contender, Phinisee had his first game of the season where he he posted more turnovers (four) than assists (two).

But for the most part, Phinisee has been convincing in laying claim to a point guard job that could very likely belong to him for four seasons. Phinisee leads IU with 29 assists against only 13 turnovers in his first 188 collegiate minutes.

“He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Miller said, “but he is there every day. He’s extremely tough-minded. He thinks during the games. He can communicate. He improves from film session to film session.”

His physical strength has gone a long way toward helping him step into the job so soon. Phinisee, who was listed at 155 pounds on last year’s McCutcheon roster, entered his freshman season at IU weighing 180 pounds.

That’s allowed him to get to — and finish at — the rim with power and compete immediately at the defensive end. Some of Phinisee’s most impressive work during the first month of season came while holding Marquette star point guard Markus Howard to a muted offensive performance in IU’s 96-73 victory on Nov. 14.

“After he realized that he would be playing at a big Division I school, he started taking things a lot more seriously,” said Alantae Crawford, Phinisee’s oldest brother. “He had keys to the gym, so three, four times a week, he would go and get shots up at night. He really took his weightlifting serious. Once he got all his weight stuff from (IU strength and conditioning coach) Clif Marshall, he was super serious about that even before he left for Bloomington.”

It’s showing now.

Phinisee came to Indiana this past summer eager to claim a big role inside of a lineup that needed a true point guard. Perhaps most importantly, he backed up that desire by doing his homework before he even stepped onto campus.

That’s allowed him to assert himself early and operate ahead of the curve, something he’s been known to do.

“It’s a pretty impressive thing for a freshman to do, to walk into any college, let alone one the magnitude of IU, and play well,” Peckinpaugh said. “I’ve noticed he’s directing people where to go. For a freshman to take over that way, it shows his maturity. He’s always been a very mature kid and ahead of his years. I think he’s showing that on the court now down there at IU.”

12 comments

  1. Nothing like a PG possessing talent and skills + that heady maturity to blend into his new team. Closely reminds me of a PG who played a few years back at NC St.

  2. Many co workers and I are talking about IU basketball this season. Why are they playing such uninspired basketball…even at home vs small schools?

  3. It does seem like a disjointed product, JPat. I have my theories…but would anyone care? No.

    In a nutshell:
    Power struggles + injuries + lack of leadership identification(lack thereof) = Poor chemistry + uncertainty + elevated concerns with roles on the team + poor shooting + tentativeness = turnovers = poor focus = breakdowns in cohesiveness(defensively and offensively) = appearance of uninspired play.

    Is Green happy playing behind Phinisee? Does Anderson believe he should get on the floor before Green…etc, etc, etc? Does Romeo assume the leadership role on the team since he is the coveted top recruit? Is that leadership role emerging? Does he want to be the leader or does he just want to put his one year in and get out of Dodge with ‘Team Adidas’?

  4. all good thoughts…many I have tossed around. I swear we could be a damn good basketball team if everyone would get on the same page…and healthy.

  5. GOOD NEWS, Jackson-Davis just verbally committed to IU. Seen him play a couple of times. A good big man that can play right away.

  6. I agree. That is the one thing I was so excited when Archie came to IU. His teams played hard-nosed defense and he turned 3 stars into 4 and 5 stars. His Flyers teams played every night like it was an elimination game (because it was). I just want this team to find joy in playing the game at this point. Cut out all the outside noise and BS and just start playing for each other. This team should watch our Men’s soccer team. That is a brotherhood. They want to play the best and win or lose, they are bringing it. Just play because you love the game.

  7. Difference in favor of Archieway is Indiana focused outward recruiting. IU welcomes comit, Trace Jackson -Davis added with Cathderal recruit.

  8. Get a bunch of 4 and 5 star all star players on the same team and get them to play together A.M. will start looking a whole lot better.

  9. In your post at 1:43 P/M. on November 30th (in case you forgot, Harv), you expressed that “no one” would care about your analysis. That is your only error (so far) this season, as your comments have been “right on”. It’s not so much that Archie gets 4 or 5 star recruits (though it’s important, of course, to get talented players)….the big thing is having all the players wanting to play for, as you’ve expressed it in the past, the Candy Stripes. I don’t see it happening (so far) this year…. and I think power struggles (specifically, not knowing to p a s s the B a l l to ROMEO at A L L T I M E S) has a lot to do with it. Perhaps some players need to sit (including Phinisee) until they realize in whose hands we are best served with the basketball.

  10. Well, thanks for those kind words. I’m usually spot on when eating spaghetti, said my favorite shirt.

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