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Size means nothing to the Newton High boys
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Oh, if only they had some size.

It's a phrase uttered by some people who have watched the Newton High boys basketball team this season. A team that has won 16 of its first 20 games, finished third in a prestigious holiday tournament and stood toe-to-toe with the best teams in arguably the best region in Class AAAAA, Newton is not viewed by some as a viable postseason threat because the Rams don't have a huge frontcourt presence.

And to a certain extent, it's a fair assessment. Newton thrives on its guard play, which was the case during Friday night's victory at Union Grove, the Rams fifth consecutive victory and seventh in their past eight outings.

The Rams are nowhere to be found in the Class AAAAA state rankings. When people talk about the favorites in Georgia's largest classification, the focus automatically goes to powerhouses such as Savannah, Wheeler, Marietta and Norcross, which is nationally ranked and the two-time defending state champion.

And while it's true Newton doesn't possess a 6-foot-10 beast in the middle, the Rams do have the good guard play, the ball movement, the defensive intensity and the shooting an undersized team needs to succeed in the postseason. On the other hand, those who live by the jump shot die by the jump shot (so goes the old saying), and that's a dangerous path by which to live.

But the beauty of high school sports is playing the hand you're dealt, and you've got to think this team has at least a puncher's chance of dancing to the last days of February and beyond.

Why do I say that? I've seen it happen before.

Gainesville's boys didn't have a huge inside presence in 1999, yet they made it all the way to the state semifinals. Camden County's girls didn't have a huge inside presence in 2002, yet they made it all the way to the Final Four. McIntosh County Academy's boys rode their guard play and quickness to the Elite Eight in 2005.

Newton reminds me of all three of those teams, squads I was fortunate enough to cover: Great guards. Several players who could take over a game on the offensive end. Tenacious defense. Great regard for taking care of the basketball.

Particularly with Gainesville and Camden, the schedule helped, too. Both those teams played in great regions, and Newton is blessed to be in one of the toughest regions in the state, Region 2-AAAAA.

When you face teams like Douglass (ranked sixth in this week's Georgia Sports Writers Association poll), M.L. King (ranked seventh this week) and Stephenson twice a year during the regular season - and you figure to see them again in the region tournament - your players are exposed to the type of talent you see night-in, night-out during the state playoffs.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, the Rams see in February will faze them. All too often, teams have a good regular season, only to wilt in the heat of the postseason pressure cooker. No chance of that happening with a Newton team that's already beaten Douglass once this season, finished third at the Citizen's Bank Holiday Hoopfest at Cass High in December, and has battled gamely against Stephenson and M.L. King.

Newton gets one more crack at those final two teams I mentioned the next two weeks, and both matchups are at home (the Rams play host to M.L. King Feb. 1 and Stephenson Feb. 8). The current win streak, including a last-second win over Douglass Jan. 15, has given the Rams a confidence boost heading down the stretch.

"It shows the other teams we have a good team," said senior guard Sean Monk, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer toppled Douglass and who led the way with 22 points against Luella.

There's no denying the Rams are good, especially when they play the way they did Tuesday against Luella. Newton used superior play from its backcourt, balanced scoring (four players in double figures), suffocating defense (forcing 18 Luella turnovers) and great discipline with the ball (just one turnover in the first 27 minutes).

And that's what it will take when the postseason tips off. Winning in the playoffs comes down to taking teams out of their comfort zone and maximizing what you do best.

With a field fill of heavyweights like Norcross and Savannah, many may not give the Rams much of a chance to survive beyond a round or two. Just getting one of the four state berths out of Region 2-AAAAA will be a challenge in and of itself. But I've seen it happen before, and if Newton's perimeter game, guard play and defense can continue to play like it has for most of this season, the Rams could find themselves playing longer than most observers believe.

"These guys are a special group," Newton head coach Rick Rasmussen said Wednesday. "If we continue to play unselfishly like this, we'll have a great chance to do something special at the end of the year, when it counts the most."