COVINGTON, Ga. — Don’t look now, but the Newton Rams boys basketball team is, once again, being ranked among the top teams in Class AAAAAAA.
And part of it is because the Rams, once again, boast one of the state’s best players at his position.
Preseason conventional wisdom said Newton would take a big step back after losing the nation’s top point guard in Ashton Hagans to early graduation and signing to Kentucky. Not to mention the departure of Dre Butler, who was a force down low, along with other key role players.
Newton was promptly left out of virtually every preseason poll involving Georgia high school basketball, and pushed down beneath Grayson as the favorite to win Region 8-AAAAAAA. The perception was Newton didn’t have enough elite difference makers or depth to keep pace with the success its had, particularly these past three years as reigning region champs that made deep playoff runs.
Some of that perception changed this past weekend.
The Rams pushed their record to a perfect 4-0 after big wins against cross-town rival Alcovy Friday and previously eighth-ranked Lambert Saturday.
The 88-63 win against the Longhorns (6-1) was particularly impressive, given the fact that Lambert came into that game undefeated, featuring all-state caliber players such as point guard, Mitch Ganote and 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward Colin Granger.
Granger had a 40-point explosion in an earlier win against Peachtree Ridge, and the matchup between him and 6-foot-7 Newton power forward, Armani Harris was tabbed as one of the more appealing ones in the entire showcase.
So when Newton bolted out to an 18-2 lead toward the end of the first quarter, en route to that 25-point win, Rams coach, Rick Rasmussen admitted that even he was a bit taken back.
“You know, I was really surprised when that’s what the lead got to be,” Rasmussen said. “And you know, in their defense, I knew Lambert was powerful. They cut it to four around the middle of the second quarter, but we went back up by 13 at the half. So it was a game of runs.”
Perhaps even more impressive than the final tally of the team matchup is the way Harris dominated Granger in the much balleyhooed individual matchup to the tune of 39-6 — that is Harris scoring a career high 39 points while Granger finished with only a half a dozen, due to foul trouble keeping him either sidelined or unable to find a groove on the court.
“Armani went right at him and it got him into foul trouble immediately,” Rasmussen said. “Actually, their best two bigs were in foul trouble all night. It was a key matchup, and Armani really was out-quicking him and just being more physical. Armani was really looking forward to going against a good big head-to-head.”
And it showed — not just in the way Harris played, but in how he talked about his performance afterward.
“I said to myself before the game, ‘Kill. straight kill.,’” Harris said. “If he’s guarding me, I’m going to abuse him.”
Harris’ edge didn’t just show up Saturday evening, however. In addition to his 39 points, Harris grabbed 11 boards while besting his former career high of 27 points against Alcovy just 24 hours earlier.
The Newton senior has shown striking versatility in the season's early goings, displaying an array of moves in the low post that’s helped him dominate smaller defenders, but also showcasing a wicked first step, ball skills and an improved perimeter game that makes him a major mismatch for slower bigs.
“We’ve been working with him on his footwork,” Rasmussen said. “At the D-2 level, he can play inside. But at the D-1 level, he’ll probably be playing the four. He’ll have to go from banging inside at our level, to developing a mid-range game, and at least being able to knock-down the high school 3-pointer.”
Harris is averaging 24 points per game through the first four contests, and his play — particularly in the Lambert win — has helped push Newton into the top 10 rankings this week, for the first time, at No. 7.
“I was looking forward to that matchup,” he said. “There was a lot of hype around it with people talking about him scoring the 40 points in a game. Stuff like that. But there was a lot of underratedness coming from my part.”
For what it’s worth, those doubters seem to be getting fewer with each early-season showing, both of the Rams as a team and Harris as one of the state’s top players.
Already holding several Division I offers from mid-major schools as well as Division II overtures, Harris will, no doubt, start to find more college coaches knocking on his door if he continues to perform as he has. Rasmussen said he was contacted by Wofford about Harris shortly after the Lambert game.
But the growing spotlight and attention isn’t swaying Harris from taking a lunchpail, blue collar approach to the rest of Newton’s 2018-19 slate.
“I don’t really care about a rating, because it’s only a person’s or group’s opinion,” Harris said. “Teams get the big head when they start getting that attention. I want us to keep playing like we’re not ranked.”
The Rams are off this week until traveling to South Gwinnett (5-3) to open up region play Friday night at 7:30 p.m. Then they’ll play last season’s Class AAAA runners-up, St. Pius X at the BCB Showcase at the Buford City Arena.
And Rasmussen said he’s looking forward to seeing how his bunch responds to the microscope now being focused on them.
“It’ll be interesting to see how our guys handle basically going into the rankings this week,” Rasmussen said. “Are they going to play with an edge now or get big in the head? What is it going to do to our confidence? I hope it will make us work harder, continue to improve and not be satisfied with playing well right now. We have to continue to have that chip on our shoulder.”
Harris’ success doesn’t equate to one-man show
Although Harris’ play has been stellar through the first four games, he’s not the only one playing at a high level for No. 7 Newton.
Seniors Tre Clark and Tyrease Brown are averaging 17 and 13 points per game. And junior guard Shawn Smith is scoring just under 10 per contest.
The balanced approach is much different than last year’s team which relied heavily upon Ashton Hagans as the engine that pushed their success. And if Lambert considered Newton lightly before Saturday’s game, it’s something that Harris believes was an easy — if not lazy — way to describe the Rams after last year’s departures.
“I think (Lambert’s) whole team kind of underestimated us,” he said. “A lot of people have been treating us like, ‘these boys lost Ashton. They can’t do nothing without him.’ But a lot of people don’t understand this, that when you’re playing with a player as gifted as Ashton is, you’re playing with him having the ball in his hands a lot, setting other players up.
“Now guys like me, Tyrease, Shawn and Tre can showcase our ability to score. Sometimes people tell us, ‘You guys look different. Why didn’t ya’ll do all this last year?’ But some of us were just playing our role last year. The role that was best for our team. Now we’re taking on a new role because those people like Ashton and Dre aren’t here to make those plays and finish. That’s our job now.”
Even as the aforementioned players have stepped up to new places, other role players are starting to emerge. Since summer league play, Rasmussen has regularly praised the scrappiness of players like Doug Moore and the on-ball defense of a guy like senior Mike Mathison.
“Those guys, and others, are starting to see their roles,” Rasmussen said. “It’s exciting to see the buy-in and to see these guys really execute and do their job. If we continue to do that, the results will take care of themselves.”
Rasmussen says Region 8-AAAAAAA as loaded as ever
If you’re wanting to find an early-season game that will likely depict the class of the region, circle Tuesday December 11 on your calendars.
That’s when Newton will travel to play Grayson (5-2) — a team that most high school hoops prognosticators have tabbed as the region favorite. Just like Newton, the Rams of Gwinnett County started the season winning its first four games. Their only two losses are a 57-56 heartbreaker to Peachtree Ridge in the Jared Cook Classic and a 70-58 defeat at the hands of a highly regarded Mill Creek squad.
But beyond Grayson, Rasmussen believes the region rigor will be just as plenteous as in recent times.
“Definitely fairly similar to the last few years,” he said. “Grayson has added some move ins. They’ll have Kenyon Jackson back from football. Deivon Smith has some high major offers. Guys like Reco Hallmon are shooters who are solid.
“But then, I think Rockdale’s gonna be tough. They’re a rival, and always gives us their best shot. Shiloh’s got Toneari Lane and Kendal Lewis who were starters last year. Lane was really, really good as a sophomore. Six-foot-five forward. He’ll be tough.”