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Can Newton make it back to the elite 8?
JD Notae goes up for tha easy lay-in against Lovejoy.

Potential starting five: Ashton Hagans, Jaquan Simms, JD Notae, Deandrae Butler and Josh Tukes.

Offensive style of play: Fast and Uptempo. Jump-shooting team.

Defense style of play: Rasmussen plans to mix it up. Man-to-man. Matchup zone (2-1-2, 2-3). Different presses.

Five questions heading into the season:

Do the Rams have enough defense inside?

Yes, but it depends on the lineup. Deandrae Butler, Chaz Tanner and Dante Johnson are relative unknowns at the varsity level, but they have height and athleticism that can help a Newton defense if used properly. Josh Tukes is a good shot blocker and will be a formidable rim protector against most normal starting lineups that Newton will face.

Will the lack of experience cost Newton?

Probably not. They’ll turn the ball over, but Newton has a ton of talent and they should be fine as the season progresses and they learn to control the game.

Will freshman starter Ashton Hagans struggle?

Maybe, but the odds are against it. He’s a talented kid and if he plays contained and up to his potential the Rams could be in a for another deep playoff run.

Are they deep enough?

With their level of talent and experience, the Rams have a deeper lineup than they did last year on a team that went to the Elite Eight.

How much will the loss of Darvin affect the Rams?

Losing Darvin hurts early, and might cost the Rams a game or two, because he brings the presence of another ball-handler and a guy who can shoot and attack the basket. He’s a big part of Newton’s transition offense, but with that said don’t expect the Rams to hurt too bad.

Notable games on schedule: Home opener vs. Eastside Nov. 17. Region opener at Tucker Dec. 15. Philips Arena game vs. Valdosta Dec. 21. First nearby-county rival game at Rockdale Jan. 8. County-rival game vs. Alcovy Jan. 15.

Predictions: Rams finish 25-5 win Region 2-AAAAAA and make it back to the elite eight.

Newton has earned a lot of offseason hype with the addition of highly sought after freshman guard Ashton Hagans, who has received an offer from the University of Georgia before stepping on the court. Hagans, along with returning guards JD. Notae and Jaquan Simms, hopes to form one of the best ‘big three’ in Region 2-AAAAAA.

Simms was Newton’s leading scorer last year and Notae was a big revelation for the Rams when he broke out in the playoffs including a 22-point outburst in a win against Tift County. Adding Hagans, who has the ability to shoot from deep and pass with precision and the Rams have a faster, more athletic team than head coach Rick Rasmussen believes he’s ever had in his 18 years at Newton.

The plan coming into the season was to have a formidable four-guard with Simms, Hagans, Notae and Darvin Jones. Jones, however, broke the fifth metatarsal in his foot a few weeks ago at a showcase and will be out until January according to Rasmussen.

In the summer, that four-guard lineup along with starting center Josh Tukes accumulated a 30-2 record including a win over last year’s Region 2-AAAAAA champion Tucker. Now, without Jones, Rasmussen is looking at starting sophomore Deandrae Butler, a 6-foot-4 forward that gives Newton an inside presence, but could potentially stunt their up-tempo pace.

“Right now I think I like playing Deandre with Josh. It solves that problem (playing against bigger teams). And Chaz Tanner solves that problem if he’s playing the four because he’s about 6’3, 6’4. He’s tough and fairly long,” Rasmussen said. “Those guys have an attitude, a physicality to them and a chip. I think that’s important. I really like that right now. That can be a blessing in disguise to make us deeper.”

After the summer, Rasmussen noted his concerns about playing with a four-guard lineup and its weaknesses such as interior defense and rebounding, but also a lack of toughness and physicality.

“We’re still going to have to work on our interior defense and rebounding and that’s somewhat predicated on toughness,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen has raved about Butler and his tenacity. The Rams’ coach, entering his 11th season at the helm, called Butler a ‘pleasant surprise’ and said he was intrigued by his athleticism, size and strength before adding that Butler has upside, but he needs to work on technique.

The starting five isn’t set just yet and may change depending on matchup. Rasmussen likes being able to push the ball with a four-guard lineup, but also having an interior presence with bigger lineups using Butler or junior forward Chaz Tanner. Depending on the matchup, either Butler, Tanner, senior guard Marvin Boireau or freshman guard Colby Rogers could wind up starting.

Coupling the loss of Darvin with the absence of junior forward Dante Johnson while the football season is still ongoing and the Rams could potentially have a problem in terms of lack of depth, but that’s not a concern for Rasmussen.

“I think it’s strong. We’re not quite as deep without Darvin. We’re hopeful he’ll get back and do a good job with his treatment and heal. Colby Rogers is really stepping up. He looks like he’s improved since the summer. He’s another freshman I really have a lot of excitement for developing as a prospect,” Rasmussen said.

Hagans, Rogers and Armani Harris are the lone three freshmen on the Rams’ roster. There are two sophomores, seven juniors and three seniors so Newton has a good balance of youth and experience, but with two freshmen — Rogers and Hagans – set to play big minutes, lack of experience could rear its ugly head when the games matter in region play and the playoffs.

“We’re excited about the youth, but it’s an inexperienced talent — the freshmen,” Rasmussen said. “We need to work on our maturity. We’re trying to figure out and identify who will be the vocal leaders who will help keep everybody in line and keep practices serious.”

Newton lost six seniors but with the freshmen they gained and some returning talent from last year, the Rams are much more versatile and deep when healthy. They can attack you with their four-guard lineup and play up-tempo with four players outside the arc with shooting ability and one in to rebound and provide a presence in the paint. Or Newton could play three in and two out.

Hagans in the pick-and-roll could be a problem with shooters like Simms and Notae spotting up/crashing the paint when the defense collapses. Newton wants to play fast and they have the ability to do it, but it’s a different pace at which Rasmussen is used to playing and with the young talent comes turnovers, which was an issue for Newton in the summer despite their win total.

“It’s a less experienced group and with that I think comes maybe less serious at times and we need to work through that and mature as the season progresses. I think that will be crucial to fulfilling the potential of our talent,” Rasmussen said.