COVINGTON, Ga. — Playing basketball deep into February and March is old hat for the Newton Rams and coach Rick Rasmussen.
And today, Newton will be entering its sixth straight state tournament when it hosts the Lambert Longhorns (21-6) at 7 p.m. at the Rams’ home gym.
Here are five keys to tonight’s game you may want to keep your eye on.
1. Colin Granger’s revenge? When Lambert and Newton met back on the first day of December in a showcase up in North Georgia, much was made about the then-top 10 ranked Longhorns and their 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward Colin Granger, along with other players. Newton came in unranked and largely unheralded after losing Ashton Hagans a year early to Kentucky. The Rams had a 6-foot-7 forward of their own in Armani Harris, but many considered him to be unproven against big time talent.
Then he erupted for 39 points against Granger. He took it to him offensively, helped usher him into foul trouble and locked him down defensively when he was in the game. Since then, Granger’s gone on to have a solid season. He’s got offers from the likes of Mount St. Mary’s and Siena, with an assortment of Division I, and even some Power Five interest. But so does Harris.
Harris comes into tonight’s game averaging 19.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots per game. He’s got Division I offers from Presbyterian, Alcorn State, Loyola Maryland and Maryland-Eastern Shore among others. Both he and Granger were named to the Atlanta Tip-Off Club’s All-Metro Midseason team. Rasmussen said he doesn’t expect another 39-point burst from Harris tonight — not because he’s incapable, but because he expects Granger and company to be more honed in on what Harris can do. It should be fun watching those two bang down low.
2. Backcourt vs. Backcourt. The big names are Mitch Ganote for Lambert and Tre Clark for Newton. Ganote averages 20 points per game and is a playmaker and pure point guard who always seems to be in the right place at the right time and can help his teammates find their spots as well.
For Clark, the recent VCU commit typically gets singled out because of his scoring. He’s putting up 19.7 points per contest this season, and has shown a sweet stroke from behind the arc at times. But don’t overlook the fact that he’s a playmaker in his own right. He averages 5.4 assists per game, pulls down 6.2 rebounds per game along with three steals. He’s proven himself to be more than just a scorer.
But the thing to watch in this matchup may be the way the lesser publicized players perform. For Lambert, its Braxton Beaty, an athletic, 6-foot-1 combo guard who can be a bit of a slasher and Luke Champion who shoots 45 percent from 3-point range. With Newton, it’s junior Shawn Smith (7.7 peg, 4 rpg, 3apg) and Tyrease Brown (13.3 ppg, plus-35 percent from behind the arc). But don’t sleep on Mike Mathison, particularly as a quick, athletic and scrappy defender off the bench.
3. Making the Adjustments. Typically you may be more accustomed to hearing the term “multiple” to describe a football team’s playbook. But the term applies with Lambert defensively. They don’t do a lot of junk stuff, but they throw a ton at you and they like to switch things up frequently. Newton may find itself having to adjust on the fly. But also when it comes to Newton’s defense, the question to consider is, what do you do if Champion or Ganote gets hot on the outside? If Granger starts to go off, do you slip another defender on him to help Harris out?
What will make this fun is the fact that both of these teams have solid, legit Class AAAAAAA talent, but they’re also superbly well-coached. So expect a bit of a chess match between the sidelines.
4. Looking ahead. Sometimes in state tournament games, particularly in the first round, teams can get caught bracket watching — that is, looking ahead to see who they may play in the next round. That’s more typical with No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, because of the opposition they typically draw. But by virtue of the high quality of teams in this first round battle, neither squad has the liberty of doing that.
To be sure, intriguing matchups do await for whichever squad can pull it out tonight. The winner of tonight’s game, for instance, will likely get 2017-18 defending state champion, Meadowcreek. But neither team will likely be thinking much about that until this game is over. This could easily have been an intriguing Sweet 16 or Elite Eight matchup if the brackets would’ve fallen that way.
5. Get there early. Recent history has shown that Newton fans love to pack out their gym for state tournament games. And there’s no reason to believe Lambert won’t travel well. So if you’re thinking you can leave your house at 6:55 p.m., slide into a quick parking spot and get a prime seat, you may run the risk of being disappointed.