During his press conference after Wednesday’s victory over Tulane, University of Memphis coach John Calipari referred to Tennessee forward J.P. Prince as “P.J. Prince.” Was this a slip? Or a slight? An honest mistake, or a calculated snub? Hard to say. But it definitely was no fluke. Calipari did the exact same thing before Thursday’s practice at the Finch Center, referring to a player he once recruited as “P.J.”
Prince, a sophomore and former White Station standout, was being mistaken for pajamas.
When he was just emerging from a physician-induced coma in April 2006 — a procedure to remove his wisdom teeth had gone horribly wrong, the aftermath draining 25 pounds from his already sinewy 6-foot-7 frame — there was no way Prince could have fathomed the future, that just 20 months later, he would be one of the more intriguing subplots in college basketball’s most hyped matchup of the year.
After Thursday afternoon’s practice at Thompson-Boling Arena, Prince wondered aloud about what kind of reception he would get from the crowd at FedExForum tonight when second-ranked Tennessee (24-2, 11-1 SEC) collides with top-ranked Memphis (26-0, 12-0 Conference USA).
“We’ll see the first time I touch the ball whether they boo me or cheer me,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Once upon a time, Prince roamed the sidelines at The Pyramid as a ballboy for the Tigers. His father, John, served as an assistant under Larry Finch.
“Everyone’s known me since I was in the second grade in Memphis,” Prince said, adding: “I’ve played in front of those people thousands of times.”
Statements like those are revealing. Along those lines, there appears to be a feeling among some Memphis players that Prince thinks highly of himself, that even if he did grow up in the city spotlight — his talents were evident from an early age, and his father had a high-profile job — he should keep his ego in check. He can rub some the wrong way.
For example, Prince was asked this week about choosing Arizona over Memphis coming out of high school.
“I just needed to get out of Memphis,” he said. “I had seen it all and done it all in Memphis. I just wanted to take my game elsewhere.”
It should be noted that Calipari instead wound up signing Chris Douglas-Roberts, a candidate for national player of the year. And though Prince said he regards many of Memphis’ players as friends, at least one member of the roster does not feel the same way. Senior guard Andre Allen, a fellow Memphian, was asked if he was looking forward to seeing Prince tonight.
"No,” he said.
Prince’s teammates appreciate him. Senior guard Jordan Howell described him as a “freak athlete,” a versatile player who has adjusted to coach Bruce Pearl’s frenetic style.
Prince, who sat out the first nine games of the season because of NCAA transfer rules, averages 8.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists — and at least one shriek from Pearl per practice. Upside, a slice of coach-speak employed often by Pearl, doubles as a euphemism for untapped potential, and Pearl pokes and prods Prince by the day, seeking better effort, more consistency, improved production.
“I always get yelled at,” Prince said. “I’m used to it. Me and Coach have a great relationship. He does that because he knows I need it, to keep me motivated.”
Tennessee, Pearl said, would not have won at Xavier on Dec. 22 without Prince, who scored 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting in 20 minutes off the bench. In hindsight, Pearl said, the Vols’ 82-75 victory ranks as one of the more impressive road performances in college basketball this season.
“We’re not where we’re at, we’re not No. 2 in the country, without J.P. Prince,” Pearl said. “I think he’s got great upside. Not good, great upside.”
He has cracked double-figures in scoring just six times in 17 games, which seems as much the product of his learning curve as the Vols’ depth. Ten players average at least 10 minutes per game. And in a twist, Prince has shown flashes of promise as a versatile defender, despite crafting a reputation as a scoring slasher. In the late stages of Tennessee’s 47-45 victory at LSU on Feb. 9, Prince blocked a shot, picked off a pass and flicked away a dribble.
Pearl said he might talk with Prince before tonight’s game, just to make sure he avoids getting too emotional. As for Prince, he said he has nothing but love for Memphis — “I root for Memphis all the time,” he said — even if Memphis no longer feels the same way about him.
“I still got my Memphis shorts,” Prince said. “I might wear them to the game, you never know.”