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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT

Extra Credit

Meeting Academic Demands Allowed Tommie Prince Another Chance to Lead Pepperdine Into the NCAA Tournament

March 16, 2000|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New coach with a new system? Bring it on. That's all Tommie Prince remembers thinking.

Jan van Breda Kolff's arrival at Pepperdine was similar to a professor taking over a class at mid-term. The students had to listen to his demanding lessons.

The Waves all proved willing, but Prince in particular was primed for accelerated instruction.

He had just completed a staggering 42 units in two semesters to satisfy an NCAA requirement by earning a bachelor's degree in four years after leaving high school as a Prop 48 nonqualifier. In doing so, Prince gained another year of eligibility.

Prince, a 6-foot-5 forward, has helped the Waves to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994. He is Pepperdine's best defensive player, a clutch scorer and mature leader.

"Tommie is the heart and soul of this basketball team," Van Breda Kolff said.

Prince, 22, wouldn't even be part of it without inspiring academic achievement. He will earn another bachelor's degree this spring and plans to become an elementary school teacher. His grade-point average in four years at Pepperdine is 3.2.

Two coaches. Two degrees. That's a lot of learning in a short time.

"School became very important to me," Prince said. "It's important to my parents and important to my future. I changed my whole approach from being laid-back to getting it done."

Prince, who lives 20 miles from campus with his girlfriend of three years, Raeshell Martin, was at Pepperdine from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. nearly every day last year, breaking from classes only for basketball practice.

"I could study anywhere, any time," he said.

He taught himself how to learn. And learning from mistakes? Prince could write a textbook on that subject.

After leading Compton Dominguez High to a Southern Section championship in 1995, he went from prospect to flameout to forgotten. He was dangerously close to being only the underachieving older brother of McDonald's All-American and eventual Kentucky star Tayshaun Prince.

First blow: Prince had his SAT score invalidated and a scholarship to UCLA taken away in 1995.

Second blow: Arizona State accepted him under Prop 48, but he and two teammates were charged with sexual assault in 1996. Charges were dropped, but his reputation was torched.

Arizona State reinstated him, but he had no intention of staying.

"Nobody knew what really happened and I had to live with that," he said. "I knew I was innocent. I left Tempe because people there didn't back me up when I was under fire."

Prince had no trouble finding a school for the '96-97 season. First-year Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar had recruited him as a UCLA assistant and welcomed him to Malibu.

"I'd never heard of Pepperdine in my life, I'd never been on this side of the world," Prince said. "I wanted to play for Romar."

Prince became an integral cog in a painstaking rebuilding process. The Waves were 6-21 his sophomore season but improved to 17-10 and 19-13.

Last season he was chosen West Coast Conference defensive player of the year, but his scoring average dropped to a career-low 6.3 points.

People wondered why he wasn't better. After all, Prince made several All-American teams at Dominguez and was among the nation's top 50 recruits in 1995.

But few knew he was more concerned with other numbers, such as the 20 units he carried in the fall and 22 he took in the spring.

This season is a breeze by comparison. He has a normal course load and basketball is something to savor.

It is a fresh Prince enjoying his senior season to its fullest. Van Breda Kolff's up-tempo system is conducive to Prince's athleticism and physical style. He's surrounded by his best friends--teammates Tezale Archie, Nick Sheppard and Kelvin Gibbs. Playing Indiana in the NCAA tournament is the realization of a dream.

"Romar believed in me and I owe him everything," Prince said, "but I love these coaches to death. Plus, I'm with guys I like."

His happiness--as well as maturity--is apparent on the court. He grew out an Afro in honor of his favorite player, Julius Erving. And as one would expect, Prince is a student of the game, meticulously preparing for every opponent.

"Tommie brings all the intangibles a casual fan can't see but players and coaches see," Archie said. "He's an aggressive, intimidating player and a total team guy. When Tommie says something, we all listen up."

And for someone who quietly averages 9.8 points, Prince mixes in a few key shots too.

Pepperdine cemented an NCAA tournament bid by winning the semifinal game of the WCC tournament. Prince, who has only 16 three-point baskets this season, salvaged a broken play by making a shot from behind the arc to extend a one-point lead with 1:15 to play. Seconds later, he grabbed a loose ball, was fouled and made two free throws that clinched the 58-55 victory over Santa Clara.

"Those five points might have been our biggest of the season," Van Breda Kolff said.

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