Prince charming Vol Nation

Twelve months ago Bruce Pearl took a chance on a guy with health issues, and the 2007-08 Vols are a much healthier team because of it.

After having his first 1½ seasons at the University of Arizona hindered by an assortment of health problems, J.P. Prince decided to transfer to a new school closer to his Memphis home. Figuring he was damaged goods, some coaches showed no interest. Pearl was an exception, and now he has picked up an exceptional talent because of it.

"Coach Pearl took me in when a lot of coaches wouldn't because of my health and everything," Prince recalled moments after a 13-point, 7-assist performance in Wednesday night's 86-73 defeat of UNC-Asheville.

In his first two games since gaining his eligibility as a Vol, Prince has scored 21 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out 9 assists. And, despite a 12-month layoff, he has committed just 2 turnovers in 45 minutes of action. He is rapidly becoming a crowd favorite.

Asked to explain his productivity, Prince smiled.

"I think the biggest thing is just that I'm happy," he said. "Coach Pearl does a great job communicating with players. With a man like that, I can't do nothing but give him 110 percent and continue to try and improve for him.

"He's done a lot of things for me a lot of coaches wouldn't have done under the circumstances I was transferring under – my health and all – so I'll go to the wall for him. Whatever he needs done, he knows I'll go out there and do my best to get it done for him."

The 6-8, 200-pound sophomore may have left Arizona behind but he still hasn't left his health problems behind. He underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in early November and is still rounding into shape. Perhaps that is why he was a first-half stud and a second-half dud in his first two Vol performances.

In his Vol debut against Western Kentucky last Saturday night, Prince had 8 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in the first half. In the second half he had 0 points, 2 rebounds and 0 assists. It was more of the same in the UNC-Asheville game – 10 points, 2 rebounds and 6 assists in the first half, 3 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist in the second half.

"J.P. played a great first half," Pearl said. "This is two games in a row that he played very well in the first half."

Asked why he thinks Prince has been more productive early than late, the Vols' head man replied: "Fatigue, getting his legs, playing with that same urgency."

Prince, however, says the answer is none of the above. He says his path to the basket was blocked by 7-foot-7, 360-pound Kenny George, who played much more and much better in the second half Wednesday night.

"My game's getting to the hole, and the first half I was running the court and getting a lot of lobs and stuff," Prince said. "Normally, I could go lay some balls up but with him (George) there, you've got to back it out or kick it out for a shot."

Prince had never seen a figure quite as imposing as George, and he suspects he never will again.

"When the ball's on the rim, nobody's got a chance but him," the Vol sophomore said. "It was an unusual thing, and we'll never have another game like that the rest of the season ... where every rebound within two feet of the goal was his."

In spite of his second-half lulls, Prince has provided a tremendous spark in his first two games as a Vol. He is versatile enough to play every position except center. He is incredibly fluid, gliding effortlessly to the basket for dunks and dish-offs. Moreover, he is too tall for guards to cover and too quick for forwards to cover.

"J.P.'s a tough cover because he's so unselfish and he's smart," Pearl said. "He can see over the opponents, he can play any position, he gives us versatility. In continuity and transition, he's a high-percentage finisher. He's a terrific player and he's got a real feel. I've just got to keep his intensity level up on the defensive end."

Wednesday night, in just his second game with the Vols, Prince came off the bench to play 26 minutes. Only All-American Chris Lofton (30) played more. As Prince continues to shed the rust of a 12-month layoff, it will become increasingly difficult to keep him out of the starting lineup. That doesn't seem to be a big concern, however.

"I'm just glad to play basketball," he said. "I feel like my old self again, like I did in high school. I'm just getting back."

When he gets all the way back, those coaches who thought he was damaged goods may be feeling a little sick themselves.

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