Throughout his four years at Indiana, Rob Phinisee's fortunes have perfectly mirrored the school's basketball program. He has tons of potential and has had moments of brilliance that seemed to signal a significant shift in his fortunes, followed by immense failures that spelled doom to his career. It turns out, all he needed was someone to believe in him.
Enter Mike Woodson.
On Thursday night, Phinisee had the game of his career against the rival Purdue Boilermakers. A Lafayette native, Phinisee had never beaten Purdue -- and boy had he heard about it every time he went home. The Boilers owned a nine-game win streak over the Hoosiers and came to Assembly Hall ranked No. 4 and ready to spoil the big party happening on campus. By the end of the night, Phinisee was riding on the shoulders of his fellow students after a stunning upset led to a cathartic court-storm. In the end, the credit goes to Woodson, whose belief made Phinisee a hero.
Phinisee dropped a career-best 20 points on Tuesday, including 17 in the first half when he went absolutely nuclear. He was also a whirling dervish on defense, locking down whoever was in front of him and nabbing four steals. It was already a brilliant night when Woodson drew up a play to get him a look after a dead ball. Indiana tradiled 65-63 with 36 seconds left and Phinisee hadn't scored at all in the second half. Nevertheless, Woodson ran his senior point guard off a double screen to get him a look. Phinisee caught the ball on the left wing and rose up for a 3-pointer, as the crowd rose with him in anticipation. It was well short, hitting the front of the rim. The crowd let out a collective sigh. But Phinisee wasn't done yet.
Thanks to a lucky bounce off a Purdue's Eric Hunter, Indiana got the ball back. Woodson drew up an out of bounds play, this time from under the basket. Once again, Phinisee came off a screen in the right corner, rose up and nailed a 3-pointer to give Indiana a 66-65 lead with 18 seconds left. Assembly Hall absolutely exploded. When no one else in the arena believe Phinisee could make that shot, Woodson did.
After a defensive stop, a pair of Trayce Jackson-Davis free throws, and a too-close-for-comfort final 3-point miss from Jaden Ivey at the buzzer, what seemed like the entire population of Bloomington emptied onto the floor.
In the melee on the court, Phinisee's teammates and the fans lifted him onto their shoulders in what had to be an incredible moment for a player whose career has been an absolute rollercoaster and who lost his starting job this season.
On a night when Indiana only got four points in 11 minutes out of All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, it managed to take down an incredibly talented Purdue team 68-65. How? Simply by believing it could. The team's effort, intensity and desire were turned up to 11 all night on both ends of the court. It was beautiful to see.
Woodson has been on the job since late March, and in that time has been universally lauded for how he's handled his players. His style is to lift those around him up, not tear them down. Behind the scenes, players have all let it be known that they feel like Woodson backs them 100 percent, and believes in them. That's a stark departure from Archie Miller's tenure, when the the Hoosiers often seemed to be openly questioning themselves on the court.
While some of his in-game decisions can be questioned, Woodson's faith in his players cannot. He has Indiana off to a 14-4 start, and they're 13-0 at home. The Hoosiers are recruiting like crazy again and everyone around the program seems to be confident that even better days are coming. And soon.
While all of that bodes well for Indiana basketball moving forward, right now, in the moment, things already feel different than they have in the past. That was illustrated by a postgame moment Woodson shared with Phinisee. He awarded the senior guard the game ball, and discussed their relationship a bit as Phinisee was clearly emotional. If the video doesn't tug at your heartstrings, check your pulse.
Mike Woodson believes in his players. And they're starting to believe in themselves. That's a dangerous combination for the rest of the Big Ten.