Three years after LeBron James led his high school to prominence before taking his breathtaking game to the NBA, Ohio has another national prep basketball power.
North College Hill High School is 19-1, its schedule loaded with top teams from Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and California. The team features O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker, widely considered among the best two or three players in the nation's high school junior class.
Saturday night, the No. 2-ranked (USA Today) Trojans took top-ranked Oak Hill Academy to the wire before losing 88-74 in front of a sellout crowd of about 16,500.
Oak Hill is accustomed to such attention. It claims six unofficial national titles and beat James' Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's team in two of three meetings.
"They've played across the country, played the best teams," North College Hill coach Jamie Mahaffey said. "They play the teams that prove they need to be No. 1."
In the third season for Mayo and Walker, North College Hill upgraded the schedule for a team with a strong supporting cast that included 6-foot-11 junior Keenan Ellis until he left recently for undisclosed reasons. Playing "national schedules" has become common for leading high school teams.
"It's very intense. You just have to be prepared and don't look ahead," Mahaffey said. "But our players are very mature about it."
"They're just tests," said Walker, a 6-6 forward fond of spectacular dunks but able to hit 3-pointers. "We just wanted to see where we're going to be this year."
Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, whose team improved to 36-0, said Mayo, a 6-5 guard, and Walker are "obviously exceptional," adding, "I enjoy playing the better players out there."
Smith's team boasts at least seven players headed to Division I schools, led by North Carolina-bound senior guard Tywon Lawson.
Walker had 50 points and 25 rebounds in a 100-68 victory over Covington (Ky.) Holmes, a tuneup for the Oak Hill game.
The school's athletic director, Joe Nickel, is spending much time fielding ticket requests. More than 10,000 fans turned out for a Jan. 16 game with Cincinnati Taft at Xavier University. Scalpers were getting $25 to $50 for $10 tickets.
As with James' team, schools and venues clamor for the Trojans and their fan-pleasing show of fastbreaks, dunks and alley-oops. Nickel has called Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary for advice on scheduling, and North College Hill's conference exempted the team from playing a full league schedule.
"We were looking to find competition that would help us get better," Nickel said.
Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary athletic director Grant Innocenzi says players want a national schedule.
"We thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of these kids," Innocenzi said. "How many kids can say they played at Pauley Pavilion, the Palestra or Greensboro Coliseum?"
With players such as James and Mayo nationally known before they could drive a car, and the proliferation of high school basketball Web sites and prep games broadcast on ESPN, some wonder whether the interest in marquee matchups will lead to an NCAA-style tournament.
"You certainly see that a lot of places like to attract those great teams and great players, with the opportunity to match them up," said John Gillis, assistant director of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of High School Associations.