Phinisee makes case at point guard in exhibition win over USI

It was only an exhibition for Indiana.

But it was a big opportunity for Rob Phinisee.

These are important days and weeks for the freshman point guard, whether at practice, in scrimmages or in preseason tuneups like the one IU hosted against Southern Indiana on Thursday.

There’s an opening for Phinisee to claim meaningful minutes at the point early this season, and judging from his performance across the past week, Phinisee is making his case.

The Lafayette product was Indiana’s best player on the floor during Thursday’s first half and finished with 13 points and four assists in the Hoosiers’ 96-62 victory over the Screaming Eagles at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

“He’s taking advantage of opportunity. It is what it is,” coach Archie Miller said. “Right now it’s come to the level that he’s that (next) man up. He has to be able to step in and do a good job. I think you saw a little bit of a glimpse of what we kind of see every single day: solid, really, really tough-minded defensively, smart.”

Indiana entered the off-season expecting to utilize a point guard-by-committee approach. Though Phinisee projects as IU’s future at the position, both Devonte Green and Al Durham have a year of experience operating the offense under Miller. That experience seemed it might go a long way toward setting the depth chart, at least to start the season.

But Green suffered a thigh contusion in practice late last week, pushing Phinisee into the lineup for Sunday afternoon’s scrimmage against Loyola Chicago. Phinisee started again versus Southern Indiana on Thursday.

Durham was also banged up Thursday, at one point leaving the floor to go to the Indiana locker room.

So Phinisee, a four-star prospect at McCutcheon, was again in a highlighted role, splitting most of the point duties with former Bloomington South standout Johnny Jager. Already, with the regular season opener looming on Tuesday, Phinisee has found himself occupying starter’s minutes.

Although the injuries to those around him are a factor, that alone isn’t the sole reason why. A priority recruit for Indiana since Miller was hired, Phinisee is beginning to look the part of a player Indiana can trust to run its team now and in the weeks, months and years to come.

“Coming in as a freshman, he’s the strongest freshman I’ve ever seen,” IU guard Johnny Jager said. “That dude is built, he’s tough. When he’s on the ball, (his) defense is really good. It’s tough to get around that guy. He’s strong, quick, fast. He’s just really solid all around.”

That showed on both ends of the floor Thursday, particularly in the first half. Defensively, he was active and took a charge late in the period.

With the ball in his hands, Phinisee attacked and fed the kind of drive-and-kick approach that could serve this team well.

“Rob really had some nice plays,” Miller said. “I thought he was in the paint a few times. He’s attacking the rim. With Rob, what we’re trying to get Rob to see is the floor a little earlier in transition where he can get guys like Romeo (Langford) or Juwan (Morgan) the ball a little bit ahead of the defense where they have some more room to attack.”

After posting eight points in the scrimmage against the Ramblers, Phinisee played 28 minutes without a turnover on Thursday, finishing as a plus-18 during his time on the court. It was a strong foot forward, and an effort that has to continue when the regular season tips off Tuesday night against Chicago State.

The same goes for the others in Phinisee’s freshman class, which led the way for Indiana in its lone exhibition of the preseason.

In his first game action in an IU uniform, Langford also posted 13 points, while grabbing five rebounds. Langford was active defensively, posting three of his four steals in the first five minutes of regulation.

Damezi Anderson filled a niche as a shooter off the bench, hitting four of his seven 3-pointers and finishing with 14 points.

Elsewhere, Indiana was a mix of what Miller called “good and bad” — not at all surprising on Nov. 1.

But at point guard, a position where IU has lacked steadiness in recent seasons, Indiana saw much more good than bad on Thursday.

It came from Phinisee, who continued to stake a claim to the meaningful minutes that are waiting to be seized.

“He’s done a good job as a freshman coming in, playing tough,” graduate transfer Evan Fitzner said. “It’s tough as a freshman to come in and play well defensively, kind of run the team. He’s done a really good job with it so far.”