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Former mates now foes in Norcross-Oak Hill battle

When the nation's No. 1 team, Oak Hill Academy, takes on No. 2 Norcross on Thursday night at Georgia Tech, there will be one person sitting in the stands who will have a completely unique perspective.

A person who will only be left to wonder what could have been.

"I'll probably be the only coach in the stands that's coached a kid on both teams," Bill Bufton said with a laugh.

There's no probably about it. He will be.

Two years ago Bufton was the head basketball coach at Wesleyan.

Back then, his starting frontcourt consisted of two talented freshmen, Al-Farouq Aminu and Howard Thompkins.

Today the same two players are ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 9 junior in the country and the No. 11 junior in the country, respectively. Scout.com ranks Aminu as the No. 4 junior power forward in the nation and Thompkins at No. 5.

One plays at Norcross. The other at Oak Hill.

But for one unforgettable season for Bufton, they both played together at Wesleyan

"That would have been a heck of a team down the road," said Bufton, who now is only a teacher at the Norcross private school.

Instead, the two have moved onto different teams down the road.

Aminu transferred to Norcross last year and was forced to sit out the 2005-06 season while the Blue Devils won the Class AAAAA state championship.

Thompkins meanwhile stayed at Wesleyan and led the county in scoring at 27.5 points per game, despite missing almost a month with an emergency appendectomy.

Over the summer, Thompkins decided to transfer to Oak Hill, the basketball factory in Mouth of Wilson, Va., that routinely competes for mythical national titles.

Thursday night, the two former teammates - and still good friends - will meet again in front of a packed house and a national television audience.

"He's good and I'm good," said Thompkins, who now goes by the name Trey. "It should be interesting. They've got a good team and we've got a good team."

When both players were freshmen, Bufton knew they had a chance to be special. Not just because they were tall, but because they both had such a variety of skills.

"Al-Farouq was maybe a little better rebounder and defender," Bufton said, "and Howard was more polished offensively at that time. But I think both of them have improved other parts of their game since then."

At Oak Hill, Thompkins is averaging 16.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game for the 9-0 Warriors, who have at least six high-caliber Division I players on the roster.

Aminu has played just two games for the undefeated Blue Devils, and is averaging 14.5 points per game so far.

Thompkins admits it's gratifying that he and his former freshman teammate are thought of so highly across the country.

"It's actually a great accomplishment," he said. "I always knew, in the back of my mind, that I would be successful. And I'm sure he did, too. It's just a great thing.

"But you can't take it for granted. You've got 10,000 other basketball players in the nation trying to get where you are.

"So you've got to hold your name."

And Thursday night, they're both going to try to hold their own against the other.

"It's nice to come home," Thompkins said, "but still, there's a reason I'm coming home. We can be friends (after the game), but we're coming down to get that 'W.'"

Of course it won't be the first time Thompkins and Aminu have tried to defend each other.

They have an entire year's worth of practice experience to draw from.

"Back then, for them to get a challenge at practice they would have to play against each other," Bufton said. "That's the only way they could get any competition."

Finding competition isn't too difficult now, not with the two high-profile schedules their teams are playing this season.

And who knows? With both players being recruited by a number of the same schools, including Georgia Tech and Florida, Thompkins and Aminu might be teammates again in the future.

But whatever happens Thursday night and later on in their careers, the two have certainly come a long way since the first time they stepped on a court together.

"We went to middle school together," Thompkins said. "We were young (when we met). He had just started playing ball. But you could tell he was going to be a player."

Apparently, it takes one to know one.

And while the two future Division I basketball players go up against each other Thursday night, in front of thousands of fans at Georgia Tech and millions of viewers on ESPN2, Bufton will soak it all up from his seat at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

"I want them both to do great," he said. "I'll get in trouble if I root for one (over the other), so I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it."