Phinisee eager to take next step in recovery vs. Purdue

Rob Phinisee has never played a game inside Mackey Arena.

But that doesn’t mean the Lafayette native is unfamiliar with Purdue’s basketball home.

As a young boy growing up just down the street, Phinisee regularly attended Boilermaker basketball games and had occasional summer workouts with his McCutcheon High School team on Keady Court.

The Purdue ties run deep with Phinisee, whose mother, Tanika, is a graduate of the university. His older brother, Charles, is a current student at his hometown school.

And while this weekend represents a homecoming for Phinisee, IU’s freshman point guard isn’t losing himself to the hype and anticipation.

He just wants to get his game back.

After a concussion suffered in mid-December sidelined him for three weeks, Phinisee is still working his way back to the level on which he operated before his injury. Since returning to IU’s active roster on Jan. 11 at Maryland, Phinisee has taken gradual steps toward reclaiming his role as the Hoosiers’ starter at the point.

On Saturday, Phinisee hopes to take his most significant step yet in a game where Indiana could greatly use his help.

“Really, I’ve just tried to take it day-by-day and not try to do too much so the injury doesn’t get any worse,” Phinisee said. “I’m working with the coaches and even the academic (staff), just trying to get back to being myself.”

Indiana is eager for that to happen. That’s because the version of Phinisee that surfaced during the first two months of the season occupied a role the Hoosiers greatly needed to fill.

Phinisee asserted himself as IU’s starting point guard at the end of the preseason, starting each of Indiana’s first 12 games while flashing clutch ability in key moments on both ends of the court.

His defensive deflection in the final seconds of IU’s 64-62 win at Penn State clinched the Hoosiers’ victory in State College on Dec. 4. Days later, in a 68-67 win over Louisville at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Phinisee hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final eight minutes to help the Hoosiers secure one of their many come-from-behind victories in the young season.

Phinisee’s most memorable moment to date came in the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 15, when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer propelled the Hoosiers to a key neutral-floor victory over Butler.

But Phinisee played only seven minutes in IU’s next contest against Central Arkansas, taking a blow to the head while scrambling for a loose ball midway through that Dec. 19 game in Bloomington.

When Phinisee left the court, the Hoosiers lost one of their most important players — a savvy point man that has been everything Indiana has missed at his position in recent seasons.

A month later, Indiana is still trying to get Phinisee back to form.

“He’s still not himself in terms of his confidence level and how he was playing before he went out,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “So that changed us just a little bit, just in terms of having his consistency, especially on the defensive end of the floor.”

Whether on defense or offense, Phinisee’s absence has been felt. It also put a dent in IU’s depth, forcing junior guard Devonte Green into the starting role and leaving the Hoosiers without much help on the bench.

Coming off the Butler game, Phinisee was averaging 7.5 points and 3.6 assists per game, while his 40 total helpers ranked eighth in the Big Ten and his assist-to-turnover ratio of two-to-one ranked seventh in the conference.

Phinisee hardly did any full-court practicing with his teammates until the day before Indiana’s game at Maryland on Jan. 11. While waiting on his concussion symptoms to dissipate, his conditioning atrophied and his feel for the game waned.

In recent days, Phinisee has made it his mission to make gains in those areas and return to where he was before the injury.

“He’s still not even right now able to practice full-go just because of his wind,” Miller said. “So I mean, you’re taking three or four weeks off, and he hasn’t felt well most of those weeks, you just don’t come back swinging, you know what I mean?

“He’s the type of kid that I think that is really mindful. He’s diligent, he’s smart, and I think he knows right now that he’s going to start to play more and more minutes as the games continue to come, but he’s also a guy that right now is starting to feel his way back into the flow of the game, shooting, passing, playing defense. It’s a timing thing. Basketball is so much about rhythm and he got his rhythm sort of knocked out.”

At Purdue, Phinisee could match up with Carsen Edwards, who ranks fourth nationally with 24.9 points per game. It’s a significant assignment, one that Phinisee knows will test both his conditioning and focus.

“I’m pretty close to being back where I was,” Phinisee said. “I know he’s a great player and he gets up a lot of shots. Really, we just have to try and limit him and not try to do too much.”

Phinisee knows what else awaits him back home in Lafayette — plenty of hugs and plenty of jeers. When he turned down his hometown school to sign with Indiana, Phinisee became the first IU scholarship recruit from Lafayette since 1948.

On Saturday, he hopes he’s feeling more like himself in a place he knows quite well.

“I know there’s gonna be a lot of people supporting me there,” Phinisee said. “I know there’s gonna be a lot of boos, too. I’m ready for it.”