No. 1 vs. No. 2
A super matchup in prep basketball; NCH awaits top-ranked Oak Hill from Virginia
BY TOM GROESCHEN | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
It could be the biggest prep basketball game in Cincinnati history.
The top two teams in the country will meet when junior superstar O.J. Mayo and North College Hill face six-time national champion Oak Hill Academy (Va.) at U.S. Bank Arena at 8 p.m. Saturday. Oak Hill is rated No. 1 and NCH No. 2 in the USA Today national ratings.
It is not the first time USA Today's No.1 and No. 2 teams have met, but it is the first time it has happened on Cincinnati turf. It's expected to be the largest prep basketball crowd in city history. The 16,500-seat U.S. Bank Arena is sold out.
"This game is enormous," said Chris Lawlor, who has compiled USA Today's national poll for six years. "It will go a long way toward deciding our national champion, and with 16,000 people in there it'll be rocking. It'll be crazy."
The New Jersey-based Lawlor is among more than 100 media representatives expected at the game.
Arena officials have heard from Sports Illustrated, ESPN and others about covering the event.
Numerous college coaches also are expected, said arena spokesman Sean Lynn.
Saturday's crowd will see probably the most talent ever assembled for one prep game in Cincinnati.
The rosters include NCH juniors Mayo, Bill Walker and Keenan Ellis, all ranked among the top 50 players nationally in their class. Mayo is No. 1 and Walker in the top five of most scouts' ratings for the class of 2007.
NCH, 20-0, has won 41 straight games, including the Division III state title last season. The Trojans began the year ranked No. 6 by USA Today. By early January, they rose to No. 2 after beating then-No. 16 Canton McKinley.
Dave Krider, who began the USA Today poll in 1982 and now rates teams for Sports Illustrated, said his records do not show a Cincinnati team ever rated this high in the national boys' basketball polls. (Krider currently has Ohio State recruit Greg Oden's Lawrence North, Ind., team as No. 1 nationally, with Oak Hill at No. 2 and NCH at No. 3 in his SI.com poll.)
Oak Hill, 35-0 this year with a 51-game winning streak, features seven players signed by or committed to Division I colleges. The school has won six USA Today mythical national titles, including the last two.
Senior point guard Tywon Lawson is rated in the top 10 of his class nationally by recruiters, and has signed with North Carolina. Junior forward Michael Beasley and junior guard Nolan Smith - son of the late former NBA player Derek Smith - both are rated in the top 10 nationally in the class of 2007.
Dave Telep, national recruiting director for Scout.com, said fans will be seeing numerous future National Basketball Association players, if not future NBA All-Stars.
"Even if this was a college basketball game, that would be a ton of talent on one floor," Telep said. "It's pretty rare to have that many elite-level players in one game."
Mayo is The Man in this one, Telep said. Mayo's national reputation as the next LeBron James is well-documented, as Mayo gained national coverage from CNN, ESPN and Sports Illustrated before he even reached high school.
"Mayo is the headliner, the guy who puts the fannies in the seats," Telep said. "He's the best player in most games he plays, but Tywon Lawson is awfully tough too."
NCH is a small Division III school in enrollment, but is the best team in Ohio in any class. The Trojans' wins this season include a 69-67 decision over reigning Division I state champion Canton McKinley and an 87-49 rout of 2005 Division I runner-up St. Xavier.
Oak Hill beat Canton McKinley 51-50 earlier this season, but did it without Lawson, who missed the game for what was termed a disciplinary measure.
For NCH, Oak Hill will be the last game of the regular season. It also is probably the last big 2005-06 challenge for the Trojans, who are expected to blow through the Ohio Division III postseason and hoist another state trophy come March.
"One of our goals is to be national champs, and we have to beat Oak Hill to do that," NCH coach Jamie Mahaffey said. "It's a big game for our team, and the city is making it a big game too. It's one our kids really wanted to play."
The game was arranged with the schools through Philadelphia promoter Jeremy Treatman, whose Scholastic Play By Play Network is in its seventh year of such events. Treatman this year is doing six such events in Philadelphia and seven elsewhere, including an event in Columbus that included the Canton McKinley-NCH game in January.
The buzz for NCH-Oak Hill started last spring when it was revealed the schools were talking about playing. The hype has only increased with both teams unbeaten.
Other Cincinnati schools have found themselves swept up in Mayo mania, and some coaches like the attention it brings to town.
Lakota West coach Mike Mueller, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the Enquirer Division I area coaches' poll, said NCH-Oak Hill is a rare treat for local fans.
"It's No. 1 vs. No. 2 in America, and the eyes of high school, college and probably even the NBA will be on Cincinnati for this game," Mueller said. "That's good for all of us. We think we have a very good product here in Cincinnati year in and year out, and this is the opportunity to show the rest of the nation."
The game is expected to draw the largest crowd ever for a high school basketball game in Cincinnati.
John Perin, sports director of WOBO-FM radio in Batavia and a longtime Cincinnati basketball historian, has kept a log of large area crowds that includes the past six decades.
The largest local prep crowd is believed to be 13,649 for a regular season game on Jan. 17, 1958, at Cincinnati Gardens, featuring future NBA star Jerry Lucas' Middletown team against Hamilton in a regular-season game.
More recently, a standing-room-only crowd announced at 10,560 jammed into Xavier's Cintas Center for an NCH-Taft game in January. That is the biggest local crowd in recent city history.
Nationally, a few other 1-versus-2 USA Today meetings included DeMatha (Md.) and Mater Dei (Calif.) in the early 1980s and Tolentine (N.Y.) vs. St. Anthony (N.J.) in the late 1980s. There hasn't been such a 1-2 boys' meeting in recent years, Lawlor said.
Oak Hill Academy is located in tiny Mouth of Wilson, Va., and is a small Baptist-affiliated, coed boarding school (grades 8-12). The school has just 130 students but, for the past two decades, it has become known for attracting some of the best prep basketball talent in America.
The Oak Hill coach is Steve Smith, who is 638-38 in 21 seasons. His gallery of stars has included future NBA players such as Carmelo Anthony, Ron Mercer and Jerry Stackhouse.
Oak Hill plays a national schedule and does not compete in a state tournament and therefore plays nearly 40 games a year.
Smith is used to playing in big games, and said he hasn't had much time to think about NCH. At this writing, Oak Hill still had a few games to play before meeting the Trojans.
"I'm sure it'll be a challenge for us in Cincinnati," Smith said. "I know they have two really good players in Mayo and Walker, and also the center Ellis is supposed to be a great young player."
Oak Hill will bring about 50 or 60 fans to the game, Smith said.
"You probably won't hear them, in a crowd that big," Smith said. "We're used to traveling a lot, and playing in front of big crowds doesn't affect us much."
The game will not be televised, but will be carried locally on Hamilton radio station WMOH-AM 1450.