CINCINNATI — Of the offseason priorities for the Cincinnati Bearcats entering Year 2 under Wes Miller, addressing the point guard position was right at the top. Cincinnati crossed that one off the list on Wednesday evening, landing a commitment from Indiana transfer Rob Phinisee.
The former four-star recruit out of McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Ind., was a four-year player for the Hoosiers. He started 29 games as a freshman under Archie Miller in 2018-19 and had his best season statistically as a sophomore, averaging 7.3 points and 3.4 assists. He averaged 18 minutes in 25 games as a senior last year under first-year head coach Mike Woodson, posting 4.5 points and 1.7 assists per game. He comes to Cincinnati with one season of immediate eligibility and projects to be the starting point guard for the Bearcats in 2022-23.
Phinisee is the second transfer addition for the team this offseason, joining Old Dominion big man Kalu Ezikpe, who signed last week. Much like Ezikpe, UC leaned on prior relationships to land Phinisee. Cincinnati assistant coach Mike Roberts was an assistant at Indiana for two seasons while Phinisee was with the Hoosiers and played a key role in the recruitment. Current Bearcats administrative assistant Matt Miller was on the staff at Indiana for Phinisee’s first three years.
The transfer also mirrors Ezikpe’s in the sense that Phinisee is a one-year player who is expected to bring a defensive prowess and a toughness factor the Bearcats were desperately lacking down the stretch last season.
At 6-foot-1, he doesn’t have as much height as the Bearcats might prefer to pair with the 6-0 David DeJulius in the backcourt, but Phinisee can compensate for that with a reputation for physical, elite on-ball defense that allows him to match up with opposing bigger guards. Combined with his experience in the Big Ten, natural leadership capabilities and a brand of “Bearcats toughness” that has been lacking inside Fifth Third Arena of late, it made Phinisee a strong fit for the improvement Miller was looking to make at point guard.
“He’s somebody who is competitive. He’s a natural leader,” said Cory Rush, a longtime assistant varsity coach at McCutcheon who has watched Phinisee play since middle school. “He’s pretty quiet off the court, but on the court, he turns it on.”
Those traits developed early in Phinisee’s time at McCutcheon, where the third of four brothers found immediate success. Rush said the program had an unwritten rule that it wouldn’t elevate freshmen to varsity until they proved it was too easy for them on the junior varsity squad. Phinisee scored 25 points in the first half of his first JV game, and the coaches promptly bumped him up. He led McCutcheon to a state runner-up finish as a sophomore and was an all-state player and finalist for Indiana Mr. Basketball as a senior, setting a program record with 93 wins during a four-year career.
Rush recalled the time Phinisee scored 40 points on the road in a rivalry win as a senior, including 19 in the fourth quarter, as well as the fact that he played with a broken nose over the final stretch of the season.
“He broke it in practice and just didn’t tell people about it,” Rush said. “We had three games left, and he knew he had to play through it.”
There is an unchecked box among Phinisee’s numerous potential upgrades. Despite scoring more than 2,000 career points at McCutcheon and averaging nearly 30 points per game as a high-school senior, he couldn’t find that same rhythm in Bloomington. Phinisee never developed into a consistent shooter or scoring threat, and his numbers have dipped since his sophomore season, particularly last season when he averaged just 31 percent from the field, 26 percent from beyond the 3-point line and 41 percent from the free- throw line.
He has shown flashes on offense at various points with the Hoosiers, including 17 points and five assists in a road win over Illinois as a freshman, 18 points each in road wins over Nebraska and Iowa as a junior and a career-high 20 points in a home win over Purdue last season, including the game-winning 3-pointer to knock off his hometown program.
Those moments, however, have been the exception on offense, and the one-two punch of a pandemic season and then a coaching change didn’t seem to help Phinisee’s confidence offensively. Yet even in a diminished and injury-riddled role under Woodson as a senior, Phinisee consistently found ways to impact games. That was most apparent when he missed seven straight conference tilts with a foot injury in February, during which Indiana dropped five in a row.
“He hasn’t shot the ball incredibly well, but his basketball IQ is through the roof,” Rush said. “He just has that next-level IQ.”
Dropping from the Big Ten to the American Athletic Conference could help those offensive limitations. But where Phinisee can immediately plug in and improve the Bearcats overall — and the appeal for Wes Miller, no doubt — is with everything else he brings to the table, especially on defense. Multiple sources inside and outside the program describe Phinisee as a disruptive, game-changing defender, someone who welcomes the challenge of shutting down an opposing team’s top perimeter option.
“He’s a very good defensive player,” Rush said. “It’s something he takes personally. He wants that role to guard the other team’s best player.”
Cincinnati was at its best last season when it claimed a top-25 defensive efficiency according to KenPom, and Miller is aching to implement the aggressive, full-court pressure he ran at UNC Greensboro, areas where both Phinisee and Ezikpe can make an impact. Phinisee’s ball-handling and table-setting also should generate more open looks for the likes of DeJulius, Ezikpe and Jeremiah Davenport. And on a roster that loses seniors Abdul Ado and Hayden Koval and adds a trio of important freshmen in Daniel Skillings, Josh Reed and Sage Tolentino, there’s obvious value in bringing in an experienced, veteran leader as a floor general and locker-room presence.
The Bearcats still have one open scholarship spot remaining for the upcoming season and ideally would like to add some scoring pop on the perimeter. Lining up Ezikpe and Phinisee provides roster stability and allows Cincinnati to be selective, strategic and/or ambitious with an ever-growing portal of options. Sources confirmed that UC is hosting West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil on a visit this week and is planning to host Detroit Mercy transfer Antoine Davis as well, and they both would provide that offensive firepower.
Cincinnati has to weigh its future roster construction as well. Ezikpe and Phinisee both have one year of eligibility, as do McNeil and Davis. Current Bearcats players John Newman III and David DeJulius are also using their bonus seasons, which already guarantees at least four open spots for 2023-24. That could be beneficial for a program set to enter the Big 12 and finally able to recruit to a power conference, but how many more spots UC wants to take on is also a noteworthy consideration.
However it shakes out, Cincinnati enhanced an area of need on Wednesday with a veteran, high-major talent and moved one step closer to finalizing its roster for the upcoming season.
(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)