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January 29, 2009

Two top big men set to square off

MORE: RivalsHigh100 Hoops Rankings | Top 150 prospects for 2009

They were born nearly 7,500 miles apart, one in the U.S., the other in Sudan. Their personalities seem equally distant. One is confident, self-assured, on the verge of cocky but not quite there. The other is quiet, reserved, readily admitting angst at the thought of letting down fans, teammates and coaches.

They are Jeremy Tyler and Angelo Chol, top big men in the 2010 and '11 classes, respectively. On Friday night, they'll play one another for the first time when Tyler's San Diego High Cavers host Chol's Hoover High Cardinals.

Hype and excitement and hyperbole about which player will dominate in college and star in the NBA will fill the Cavers' stands, which surely will be lined with coaches from high-major programs across the country.

Tyler, 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds, committed to Louisville in mid-October, a decision he calls "rock solid." He held offers and interest from scores of programs, but he wanted to end the recruiting process early because the calls from reporters and visits from coaches got old.

Despite what Tyler says, there's some doubt in the high school basketball community about the sincerity of his commitment. People assume his technical fouls and occasional lack of defensive intensity mean he's uncommitted off the court.

But Tyler not only speaks at length about his growing relationship with Louisville assistant coach Walter McCarty, but he also looks down on players who commit to a school then change their minds months later.

"I try to put myself in other people's shoes, put myself in coach [Rick Pitino's] shoes," Tyler said. "If I had a kid commit to me, and then he backed out, I'd feel terribly. I wouldn't want to make someone feel like that."

Chol won't find himself in Tyler's shoes any time soon. He and his coach, Ollie Goulston, whom Chol calls a "second father," say the 6-9 sophomore won't commit until the start of his senior season, at the earliest.

That mind-set, though, deserves a footnote: Chol hasn't seen one-fifth the attention Tyler did as a sophomore. Tyler made his mark on the AAU circuit and was a brand name by the end of his freshman year. Chol is more sheltered, and he's still raw offensively. He didn't play basketball until the sixth grade, just four years ago.

He and his father, Ajieng, came to San Diego nearly eight years ago after moving from Sudan to Egypt, where they lived for a year. Ajieng, who works construction, was imprisoned for about one year in Sudan for singing about the country's ongoing wars. When he was released, he decided he wanted a better future for his son, one that included education and opportunity.

Among several things Ajieng wanted for Angelo was a chance to attend a four-year university. He's almost certain to have that now, with coaches from UCLA, Florida, Arizona State and Washington already showing up to practices and games, and letters from nearly every high-major program filling his mailbox.

But though Chol has every reason to be sure of himself and his game, he's nearly as tentative as Tyler is confident. Chol spoke no English when he moved to the U.S. "All I knew about were the ABCs," he said. He's self-conscious about his ability to speak well around reporters and coaches, which is ironic because he's more articulate than a fair share of players born and raised in America.

"My problem right now is confidence," Chol said. "I get nervous in games. I'm not scared of the people on the court or anything, but people expect a lot out of you. If you play bad, people will talk about you. I don't want to let people down."

Goulston recognizes Chol's anxiety and credits it to humbleness and a desire to please everyone, no matter how unrealistic the goals. Chol does have weaknesses in his game − a shaky jumper, an average handle and a lack of post moves − but his relentless motor makes up for a lot of deficiencies.

His offensive game pales in comparison to Tyler, who's averaging 30.1 points and nearly 12 rebounds. The gap isn't so wide defensively, and it might even be tilted in Chol's direction. The Cardinals are 18-4, thanks in large part to Chol's nightly triple-doubles; he's averaging 13.7 points, 13.8 rebounds and 10.7 blocks.

"He's got a very high learning aptitude and a strong work ethic," Goulston said of Chol. "His progress is so accelerated. Every few months he makes another jump.

"He's a work in progress, definitely. He's just scratching the surface. I don't think he has any idea how good he can be."

Fans in San Diego will find out how good Chol is on Friday, or at least how well he stacks up against a player of his caliber. To be sure, both squads have strong supporting casts. But all eyes will be on Tyler and Chol. Though they're different in nearly every aspect off the court, they both agree on one thing: they're looking forward to facing one another.

"It'll be fun, I know he's a good player," Tyler said.

And Chol: "Oh yeah, everyone's excited for [the] game. It's a great matchup."

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