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December 19, 2007Nobody was sure what to expect from guard J.P. Prince when he stepped on the court for his first game with Tennessee last week.
Two years ago, Prince was pegged as Arizona's next great point guard. At 6 feet 7, Prince was athletic, long and moved gracefully with the ball in his hands. He was ranked the No. 21 prospect in the 2005 class.
Prince received steady minutes in a backup role as a freshman, but his time at Arizona was marred by some health problems, including spending 16 days in a coma, which led to the loss of 25 pounds.
Prince transferred to Tennessee in January, but two weeks into preseason practice this year, he injured his shoulder and missed the next five weeks. Even his new teammates didn't know what would come next.
"We were all wondering what J.P. was going to do in a real game," senior point guard Jordan Howell said. "No matter what you do in practice, you can't really simulate what a real game is like."
It didn't take long to get an answer.
With the Vols up 10-7 over Western Kentucky in Nashville on Saturday night and 16:16 left in the first half, Prince was inserted into his first college game in more than a year. Eighty-seven seconds later, guard Chris Lofton fired an alley-oop from near midcourt into the hands of a soaring Prince, who skied well above the rim before slamming the ball home, igniting a giant roar from thousands of Vols fans who were part of a sellout crowd.
"It was at a time in the game when we didn't really have much going," Howell said. "It really enthused the team. It was like we all looked around and said, 'Hey, J.P. is here ? he's going to help us.' "
Prince did help, going on to score eight points, grab seven rebounds, dish out two assists and add two steals in 19 minutes as the Vols (9-1) held on for an 88-82 win.
"This game helped me get my swagger back," Prince said. "(Tennessee) Coach Bruce Pearl has given me confidence. I'm not worried when I go out there. If I mess up, he yells at me, but tells me to go back out there."
A year and a half ago, Prince didn't have any swagger. He was just happy to be alive.
While having his wisdom teeth removed in April 2006, Prince developed a serious infection and doctors induced a coma. After entering the hospital at 195 pounds, he woke up 16 days later weighing 170.
Prince couldn't talk and wouldn't be able to for nearly two more months. He tried to walk a week later and quickly fainted, falling into his father's arms.
Amazingly, Prince gained much of his weight back and was able to play in Arizona's season opener last season against Virginia, missing a 3-pointer that would have tied the game at the buzzer. But he played limited minutes in just two more games and it was quickly obvious he was far from the player he used to be.
Prince needed more rest. He desperately wanted to be around his family. That's when he asked for a transfer.
Prince looked at Vanderbilt first. It is a three-hour drive from his family's home in Memphis, and he nearly chose the Commodores the first time he went through the recruiting process. But a phone call from former Vol Dane Bradshaw, who played with Prince at Memphis' White Station High School, sparked his interest in the Vols.
"I got a call on my cell from Dane saying Coach Pearl wanted to talk to me about possibly coming to school here," Prince said.
Pearl didn't have to spend much time making a sales pitch. The Vols were coming off a 22-8 season and Prince was aware of their recent success and, more important, their fast-paced style of play.
"I had been watching all the freedom Coach Pearl gives his players and knew I would be a good fit for the system," said Prince, whose cousin is Detroit Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince.
Prince enrolled at Tennessee in January and was up to 210 pounds by the time practice started. But on Oct. 31, he fell while chasing a loose ball and suffered the right shoulder injury.
"We were all nervous, especially when he went under the anesthesia," said his mother, Mary. "We were all praying. We felt so fortunate when he woke up."
Prince attacked his rehab hard and went through the process of putting weight back on again, all along hoping to get back into playing shape by the Western Kentucky game, when he first would be allowed to play.
Now, Mary and her husband, John, say their son hardly resembles the person who left for Tucson 2? years ago.
"There is huge difference in J.P.," Mary said. "He was a miserable young man in Arizona. He wanted and needed a change. He's matured so much emotionally. It's been very good for him."
That transformation could be very good for the Vols as well. Prince gives them a versatile weapon to use at multiple positions, and Pearl now has five guards with experience at his disposal.
"We have a chance to be really special with J.P.," Pearl said. "We are going to get a lot better with him in the rotation."
Pearl won't have to convince his team of that. Prince's teammates on a daily basis see the kind of ability that made him a five-star recruit.
"A lot of days, (J.P.) is the most talented guy on the court," Howell said. "He is a tall point guard and can step outside and hit the jump shot. There are days he cannot miss."
That's an impressive statement, considering Prince plays on the same practice court with Lofton, the preseason SEC player of the year; Iowa transfer Tyler Smith, a third-team All-Big Ten selection as a freshman last season; and JaJuan Smith, the team's leading scorer at 15.0 points a game.
If Prince is anywhere near as productive as any member of that trio, the Vols will have a chance to be special.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.