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PREP BASKETBALL: No. 5 Newton off to a hot 2016-17 start
Newton boys basketball coach Rick Rasmussen calls his No. 5 Rams "hard to beat" when clicking on all cylinders. - photo by Daniel Doe | The Covington News

The opening weekend and week of the Newton boys basketball’s 2016-17 schedule should give coach Rick Rasmussen a much clearer understanding of how championship ready his team is.

Considered by many as a dark horse Class AAAAAAA state championship contender, the No. 5 Rams opened up their season in impressive fashion with two wins over quality opponents this past weekend. 

First was Newton’s 83-67 win over Class AAAA No. 1 Henry County last Friday night — a game wherein the Rams led by as many as 20 points at one point, despite playing against a Warhawks squad that boasts several Division I caliber players in Damion Rosser and Javon Greene. 

J.D. Notate, a recent Jacksonville University signee, led Newton with 17 points. Darvin Jones, who sparked the Rams with sharp shooting from the outside, was next with 15 points — including conversion of a four-point play. Sophomore standout Ashton Hagans and senior Isaiah Miller each had 15. 

It was not only fairly high scoring, but a game where Newton showed off its ample ability in the transition game and penchant to lock down on defense when necessary. 

Notae, Hagans and Miller looked like a formidable big three, and played together with the kind of chemistry that makes it hard to believe Miller was playing in his firs regular season game after transferring from Eastside. 

But Saturday’s performance was even more impressive from just a stats line perspective, even if the first half started a little sluggish. Newton blew out Class A private’s preseason No. 3 squad, Southwest Atlanta Christian, 91-60. In that one, Notae showed off the scoring form that made him arguable Newton’s hottest recruiting commodity when he blitzed SWAC with a career high 42 points, seven boards, two assists and two steals. 

Miller had 22 with five rebounds, and Hagans achieved the point guard’s double-double with 14 points and 13 assists. 

Should give coach Rick Rasmussen a lot to feel good about, right? Yes and no. When you’re trying to go where Rasmussen wants to take his team — back to the state tournament’s Final Four and beyond — simply being good isn’t going to be good enough. 

“We did not play well in the first half (of the Southwest Atlanta Christian game),” Rasmussen said. “And we got onto them pretty hard at halftime about the impatience we showed on offense and the lack of care on defense. We have to have good habits in order to maximize our potential.” 

Rasmussen and his squad will get more tune-up opportunities this week against another pair of ranked foes when the Rams take on defending Class AAAA champion and Class AAA No. 3 Liberty County Friday during the Holiday Hoopsgiving Showcase held at Holy Innocents. Then on Saturday, the Rams will face Class AAAAAAA No. 8 Berkmar at Central Gwinnett in the On the Radar Hoops Showcase. 

These games won’t directly impact Newton’s bottom line of region performance and playoff seeding — the things most germane to Newton’s quest for a state crown — but they, along with Tuesday’s game at Heritage (Newnan) and the December 2 rivalry tilt at Eastside, are matchups that Rasmussen believes can refine his ball club. 

“These games which give us opportunities against another set of ranked opponents,” he said. “We are just trying to get better and be the best team we can be. For us, it’s all about decision making and maturity. If we make smart decisions on and off the court, we’ll be a hard team to beat.”