Dane Fife leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and kicked out his legs, signaling his frustration with the events unfolding in front of him. It was late in Indiana’s 63-62 win over Michigan State on March 2, 2019, the Hoosiers’ second signature win over the Spartans that season, and Fife was seated in the middle of the visitor’s bench at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. As the final seconds died off the clock, Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston dribbled down the wing — only a few feet from Fife — as he looked for an opening to drive around his Indiana counterpart, Rob Phinisee.
But Phinisee wouldn’t budge, forcing Winston into a tough shot from the corner. The ball bounced off the front of the rim, then caromed off the extended hands underneath as time expired and the building pulsed with the thrill of victory. On the Michigan State bench, Fife simply sat there.
That moment has replayed and repeated in Fife’s mind several times during the past week, his first on the job as new IU coach Mike Woodson’s top assistant. In that time, he’s thought a lot about Phinisee, the player he once seemed poised to become and the version that has flatlined in the Indiana backcourt over the last year. There is a long list of things Fife, a former IU guard himself, wants to help accomplish now that he’s back in Bloomington.
But at the top of that list, getting Phinisee back on track takes precedence.
“That’s one of my first objectives coming here,” Fife said. “Stella figured out how to get her groove back. We gotta get Rob Phinisee to figure out how to get his groove back.”
Fife believes that process has to start on the defensive end, where Phinisee had several high points during an otherwise flat junior season. On-ball defense has been the closest thing Phinisee has had to a constant in his tool box during his three seasons at IU, and earlier in his career, it was a big reason why IU was able to win three consecutive games against the Spartans for only the second time in 30 years, with Phinisee giving Winston a fight in each of the head-to-heads.
And yet, when he sat courtside for the two IU-Michigan State matchups this season — both of them Spartan victories — Fife acknowledges that he didn’t see the same version of Phinisee as he had in years prior.
“We beat (IU) last year because Rob Phinisee, he didn’t hawk the ball like he did,” Fife said.
Indeed, the 2020-21 campaign was another tough one for Phinisee, who struggled to do much of anything consistently on either end of the court. He had some good games (18 points at Nebraska) and some good moments (a buzzer-beating shot to beat Penn State in overtime), but he never found the key needed to unlock the best parts of his game consistently.
His 3-point shooting percentage dropped from 33% as a sophomore to 26% as a junior. His free throw percentage tumbled from 72% to 63% and, per BartTorvik.com, his offensive rating fell from a 94.9 to an 89.8.
Fife, though, can relate.
While he was a dogged defender, Fife’s offensive game was nothing special — particularly over his first three seasons. By the end of his junior year, Fife’s career 3-point success rate was merely 27% and his free throw percentage was a rather modest 69%. In Phinisee’s case, he’s shooting 29% from 3-point range and 67% from the line so far in an IU uniform.
Phinisee may never be a hugely impactful offensive player, but Fife knows from experience that there are ways a guard in that mold can force his way onto the floor.
“I lasted four years with crappy offense and still played a lot of minutes and it worked out for me in the end,” Fife said. “I got a little offensive confidence. ... My personal story is a lot like Phinisee’s. Defense is his niche, and he can make money doing it if he really puts his mind to it. He will get confidence through good defense, as well.”
Indiana hopes that turns out to be the case by the end of next season. In the meantime, Fife is starting to think about ways he can help the IU point guard, who may find himself in a reduced role next season. Rising sophomore Khristian Lander will have an opportunity to earn more responsibilities, and Indiana has also added former Pitt point man Xavier Johnson, one of the best facilitators in the Atlantic Coast Conference during his run with the Panthers.
But there’s still a place for Phinisee in the rotation — and maybe a support role will suit him better anyway. If his defense, at least, is back to where Fife believes it should be, Phinisee will be given chances to positively impact the team.
Just like Fife remembers.
“We gotta get him back,” Fife said. “To me, he’s the best defender in the Big Ten.”