Some guys are easy to cheer for. There have been players who've worn the orange that grabbed our attention and respect right away, and had our love for the duration of their Tennessee careers. Sometimes they were immensely talented, and sometimes we loved them for their heart and their effort...but either way, we enjoyed cheering for them.
Other guys...they're harder to love. And sometimes that's a byproduct of their immense talent, and the way they display it versus the way we think it should be displayed. There have been talented individuals who've spent lots of time in Knoxville, but never earned the true love of the fanbase, because of attitude problems or a perceived lack of effort, or an inability to live up to the expectations we placed on them, fair or no.
We love some, and we hate some...but perhaps no player has lived in both groups throughout their entire career the way that J.P. Prince has. He's been the ultimate love-hate relationship for many Vol fans, including myself. But none of the hate has ever been in questioning his desire to win, which perhaps in turn fuels some of the frustrating things he does.
And despite our up and down history, Prince is feeling the love here at the last, playing his best basketball when his team has needed him the most.
We've got lots of nicknames for this guy: Pajamas, Mr. Stat Sheet, All Arms...and he's done a lot of good for this team and this program in 2.5 years. Prince was a Memphis native who signed with Arizona out of high school, but chose to transfer back to Knoxville after a year and a half in the desert. When he showed up in Knoxville, he was Tayshaun's cousin and a 6'7" hybrid...and we've spent the last two and a half years asking him to do a bunch of different things. He's gone from bench player to starter and back about a dozen times. He's played every position but center for the Vols, and played most of them well.
And yeah, Prince is also the league leader in:
- Conversation with officials
- Charges drawn
- Attempted charges drawn
- Total time spent lying on the floor after not getting a call
- Fouling three point shooters with the game on the line
- Most audible crowd groan when lining up a three (...until Saturday)
It's all part of the J.P. Prince experience...but so was every bit of this:
Career Highlights: 2007-08
- Ineligible because of transfer rules until the end of the fall semester, Prince didn't play his first game as a Vol until mid-December. But in his third game in orange (and playing on the loaded Vol team that would reach #1 and win the SEC title), Prince scored 23 points off the bench in an 82-75 win at #24 Xavier. It is still his career high.
- A week later, he had 12 points as the Vols won at Gonzaga, 82-72.
- He scored 10 points in both UT wins over Florida in 2008
- In the 1 vs. 2 game at Memphis, in front of the hometown crowd, Prince was Tennessee's most valuable player: 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. He got the game's most important rebound and then made two free throws with eight seconds left to give Tennessee a three point lead, and scored every one of those points in the second half.
- Inserted as the starting point guard the week of the NCAA Tournament, he had 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in a second round overtime win against 7 seed Butler (a team ranked 10th in the AP poll).
- Scored in double figures in Tennessee's first seven games (a 6-1 start) before an injury caused him to miss the next three and slowed him down.
- Often at his best against in-state foes, Prince had 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in Nashville, as the Vols throttled Vanderbilt 76-63. Followed that up with 10 points in a two point loss to Memphis four days later.
- Went on a four game stat sheet run at the start of February with a 13-5-6 at Arkansas, an 18-0-7 at Auburn, an 11-9-5 vs Georgia, and an 8-10-7 vs Vanderbilt, as the Vols went 3-1 and lost to Auburn by one point.
- In the season's most important game, Prince had 20 points and 9 rebounds as the Vols clinched the SEC East title with an 86-70 blowout win at South Carolina.
- Had a 14-10-5 in an 86-62 win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals.
- Struggled to find his role with this team early on, but again, playing Memphis brought out the best in him. After flirting with a technical foul before the opening tip, Prince had 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in just 18 minutes, as the Vols beat the Tigers 66-59.
- Saw a bigger increase in minutes than any starter after the January 1 arrests, and responded with a 10-5-6 against Charlotte, 14 points against Auburn, and flirted with a triple-double with a 13-8-8 against Ole Miss, all UT wins. Also scored 8 points in only 14 minutes due to foul trouble in the win over Kansas.
- Played his most efficient offensive game in the home loss to Vanderbilt, shooting 9 of 10 from the floor (2 of 2 from three) for 22 points to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Did it again in Nashville, with 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists in the loss.
- Had 12 points and 7 rebounds in the 61-60 win over Florida.
- After turning the ball over six times in Rupp Arena, including a crucial one with the Vols still leading in the second half, Prince played a complete game on Saturday against the Cats with 20 points, including two threes and four straight free throws to ice it...and only one turnover.
We know we're going to miss Chism, and we wonder if Melvin Goins can play as well as Bobby Maze has at point guard. But we're going to miss the way J.P. Prince seems to be everywhere, all the time. He fills up a stat sheet like no one else, and gets it done in all phases of the game. His defensive presence in causing deflections, steals, and general chaos cannot be duplicated by anyone currently on the roster. Arguably, his two greatest games are Tennessee's two greatest wins, #1 Memphis in 2008 and #2 Kentucky on Saturday.
In some ways, he's always been there: he's averaged between 8-10 points a game every year in his Tennessee career. His rebounding numbers have also been steady, and he's averaged 3.1 assists to 2.1 turnovers per game in each of the last two seasons. He's always filled up a stat sheet.
But in other ways, Prince has improved: at the free throw line, where he's moved above 60% in each of the last two seasons, but has also become more and more reliable to hit the big ones at the end. And don't look now, but Prince - who hit 15.4% of his threes in 2008, and followed that by hitting 12.5% of them last year - is shooting 30.8% from beyond the arc this season, which on this team is very respectable.
And while he may complain to officials, and he may get called for stupid fouls...Prince plays hard. He wants to win just as much, if not moreso, than anyone else on the team. We've questioned his brain and his maturity at times. But you cannot question his talent, his presence, and his desire to win. Through love and hate, we've come to appreciate J.P. when it mattered most, here at the end. And let's hope he's got more of his best basketball left in the tank for March.