Stable play from Newkirk key for Hoosiers

Two steps forward, one step back.

The Hoosiers will be looking for more efficient play from Josh Newkirk when they host Maryland on Monday night.

Newkirk authored two of his best games in an Indiana uniform during the tail end of IU’s recent three-game winning streak, before turning in an uneven performance in Friday’s loss at Michigan State.

Consistency has been a hurdle for the senior point guard, particularly this season. In recent games, however, Newkirk has demonstrated what he can bring to the floor when he’s at his best. With his teammates ailing — and forward Juwan Morgan’s status against the Terrapins unknown — the Hoosiers need stable play from Newkirk now more than ever.

“Make no mistake about it,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “There’s correlation to our team being successful and having some consistency in the backcourt, whether that’s Devonte (Green) and Josh and Rob (Johnson) against Penn State, whether that’s Rob and Josh against Northwestern. There’s a correlation that goes with our team playing well, and having good guard play.”

In wins over Penn State and Northwestern, Newkirk posted two of the best games he’s played in an IU uniform. According to KenPom.com, a web site that tracks advanced statistics in college basketball, the Jan. 9 win over the Nittany Lions stood as Newkirk’s most efficient performance against power-conference competition during his year and a half with the Hoosiers.

He scored 16 points against Penn State, went 7-for-8 at the free throw line and posted four assists against zero turnovers. The Pittsburgh transfer followed with a 12-point effort against Northwestern, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and going 4-for-4 at the line.

Friday’s trip to East Lansing was not as productive.

Although he scored in double figures for the third consecutive game, posting 14 points, Newkirk went merely 4-for-12 from the perimeter, while making only one of his five shots from inside the arc.

During his stint with the Hoosiers, Newkirk’s shot selection and finishing ability have been questionable at times. But with a banged-up frontcourt and the underclassmen around Newkirk still finding their ways, Indiana badly needs production from the senior.

“He’s been more poised,” Johnson said of Newkirk’s play in the Penn State and Northwestern games. “He’s done a better job of being a lead guard for us, getting guys involved and letting the game come to him. He’s being more vocal and you can definitely feel that out there. It’s helping when he’s leading like that.”

Newkirk says he’s trying not to force anything, that he’s at his best when he allows the game to slow down.

Doing so consistently is his challenge.

For the season, Newkirk is averaging 8.8 points, 2.9 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game.

“Especially our last two games at home with Penn State and Northwestern, Josh was a big reason why we were able to win the game,” Miller said. “We had really solid guard play at the point guard slot for heavy minutes, and he played 30 minutes in both games. He’s been able to get double figures. He’s had a high assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s made free throws, and in general defensively he’s probably had two of his better games just being able to stay in front, keep guys in front. Especially, I thought, the Northwestern game was one of his better defensive games.”

Like Indiana, Maryland is also banged up.

The Terps lost sophomore stud Justin Jackson to a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder in late December. Two days after Jackson went down, forward Ivan Bender tore his meniscus.

Without Jackson, especially, Maryland has leaned more heavily on sophomores Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan.

Cowan will be Newkirk’s responsibility on Monday. The Terps’ point guard is seventh in the Big Ten in scoring (16.3 points per game), third in assists (4.9 pg) and fourth in free throw percentage (.858).

Having Newkirk deliver on both ends of the floor will be a priority for the Hoosiers.