Long before Thursday’s opening tipoff, Indiana coach Tom Crean sent his starting point guard a message.
“Just attack,” Crean messaged Josh Newkirk. “Attack the way you know how to play.”
It was a reminder Newkirk held close.
The junior posted a double-double with 11 points and a career-high 11 assists, pushing No. 16 Indiana to a 97-62 victory over Austin Peay before an announced holiday crowd of 14,688 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Newkirk’s performance was part of strong backcourt play all around for the Hoosiers (10-2), who closed the home portion of their non-conference season with a combined 44 points between James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson.
For Newkirk, his first career double-double was the product of focus, poise and an understanding of his strengths. It came merely five days after an error-prone, uneven game last weekend in the Crossroads Classic where Newkirk forced shots and didn’t do enough to help the Hoosiers establish their pace.
But Thursday brought forth Newkirk’s most impressive effort of the season.
“I was more in attack mode,” Newkirk said, “and when I saw the defense colliding I just made the simple pass.”
Pass after pass after pass, Newkirk took what was there and seldom forced, finishing with only two turnovers.
Simplicity is more or less what Newkirk is trying to add to his game. Coming out of a poor offensive game against Butler, Newkirk said he focused this week on staying aggressive and sprinting toward the open gaps of the defense rather than barreling into traffic.
“Just as we play more together, I start to get a feel (for where) teammates like to move off the ball and stuff like that,” Newkirk said. “So I think it’s just playing with each other and just communicating and talking.”
Newkirk is a pleaser, and he wants to grow inside of Indiana’s offense. He wants to bring the speed and alertness Indiana requires. He also wants to prevent some of the out-of-synch errors he’s produced in the past from surfacing again.
Earlier this week, after Monday’s blowout of Delaware State, Newkirk was so upset about a turnover he had in the middle of the lane that he took time to view a queue of extra film clips to more accurately assess his place on the floor and identify with more certainty where everybody else is supposed to be.
“You know what? That’s great,” Crean said. “You want that. But you also want him to just go out there and play on instinct, too. And that’s what we need. … It’s like relax, you know? It’s OK. We don’t look them over, but don’t beat yourself up.”
As Newkirk has pursued growth both as a player and within the realm of IU’s team, he has had a couple steady partners to lean on in Blackmon and Johnson.
Don’t discount that.
“I think they get along great,” Crean said. “There’s no question about that. And then, in the gym, I think their synergy is forming. He doesn’t have the luxury of two-plus years like Rob and James have together, but it’s certainly coming. It’s certainly moving in the right direction.”
The backcourt shined against the Governors (4-9), who found their 2-3 zone under fire by a barrage of Indiana 3-pointers. IU took 12 of its first 17 shots from beyond the arc, hitting seven of those. A 48-31 halftime lead was cemented by a halfcourt heave from Devonte Green.
Indiana finished with 15 3-pointers — four short of the single-game IU record. It was all part of another hot shooting night for the Hoosiers, who have shot 60 percent or better in each of the last two games. That’s the first time the IU program has done so since December 1998.
Blackmon’s game-high 24 points came on a 9-for-12 shooting performance that saw him connect on four of his five 3-point attempts.
“Once you see one or two go down, the rim gets a little bigger,” Blackmon said.
On an otherwise strong night of basketball, Indiana was dealt another injury blow.
Juwan Morgan appeared to injure his right ankle late in the first half. He hobbled up off the floor and limped into the locker room for medical attention. He returned to the bench for the second half, but did not play.
Crean said that was not precautionary.
“He definitely hurt his ankle tonight,” Crean said. “He wasn’t able to go back in.”