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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | J.A. ADANDE

Looking Forward

Out of thin air, Prince has stepped up to become the essence of Kentucky cool, especially in the clutch.

March 20, 2001|J.A. ADANDE

Tayshaun Prince's shoulders look as if they barely can support his uniform, let alone an entire basketball program.

At 6 feet 9, 215 pounds, he's as thin as the last dollar bill in your wallet.

His demeanor--cool and calm--makes him appear even less likely to be an authority figure.

"If you check me out before the game, you don't see me hyped up," Prince said. "You're probably like, 'Man, that dude don't want to play.' "

Nothing about his physique or attitude would suggest it, but Prince, unquestionably, has become the leader of the Kentucky Wildcats.

"I haven't really understood how it happened or why it happened, but I'm glad it did," Kentucky point guard Saul Smith said. "Him stepping forward on our team and being instrumental and playing aggressive is what has really got our ballclub where we want it. That's just a testament to what kind of player he is. Coach needed him to step forward. As a team, we needed him to step forward, and he did that."

Prince has averaged 17.2 points and has been especially valuable in clutch situations.

He made two free throws with 26 seconds left to defeat Louisville, scored the go-ahead basket against South Carolina and made a hook shot for a 71-70 victory over Florida.

With the Wildcats locked in a tight NCAA tournament opening game against Holy Cross, Prince drained two consecutive three-point baskets, then made a soft hook shot that bounced around and hung tantalizingly on the rim before dropping in and all but sealing the victory with 21 seconds remaining.

Against Iowa in Game 2, he answered a barrage of six three-pointers by Hawkeye guard Dean Oliver with six of his own and finished with a career-high 31 points.

Prince has the Wildcats in the East Regional semifinals, against USC. That didn't seem like a plausible destination when they lost the first two games of the season and started 4-4. Then Coach Tubby Smith moved Prince from small forward to power forward. Nothing about Prince screams "power," but Kentucky has a 23-5 record and another Southeastern Conference championship since the switch.

"Some teams probably underestimate, as far as [my] playing inside and not being as strong as the guys I'm guarding and playing against," Prince said. "You've just got to be aggressive."

Take another look at his body and the tools he does have--primarily those long arms that give him a 74-inch wingspan. They enable him to get off that soft hook shot against anyone and to snatch 6.6 rebounds a game.

And take Tubby Smith's word for it, the desire is there.

"Tayshaun in his practices, he worked harder this year," the coach said. "He really excelled and pushed himself a lot. From that, you can see that the players looked up to him and respected him. He always had the skill level and could do so many things."

Prince wasn't asked to do as much when he went to Lexington after a decorated career at Compton Dominguez High. The Wildcats were coming off a national championship.

"He played his role, his first year," Saul Smith said. "We had a great senior trio with Scott [Padgett], Wayne [Turner] and Hesimu [Evans]."

Prince still managed to start 11 times and average 20 minutes and 5.8 points a game.

He said he chose Kentucky over UCLA because "I just liked being away from home. I think that was the main factor."

As a sophomore last season he averaged 13 points and six rebounds. He also sank a three-pointer with seven seconds left in regulation in a double-overtime victory over St. Bonaventure in the NCAA tournament.

"Last year, he made some clutch shots," Saul Smith said. "This year we needed him to be Mr. Everything, and he's done that. We've seen him mature and grow as a person. That shows you that not every kid who's a McDonald's All-American is ready to go straight to the NBA automatically.

"He very well could have left last year and went to the NBA. But he felt like he wasn't ready and he wanted to help his team. He could leave this year, but he feels like he's going to help his team next year. I really believe that."

Prince says he hasn't made up his mind about staying for his senior season. He can't play much better than he has in the last month. But he still could use a few more late-night pizzas.

He said he has put on almost 40 pounds since he appeared on campus, and was at 220 pounds in the fall. He has shed about seven pounds since then, and isn't about to change anything.

"Whenever I'm playing this well, I've just got to keep the weight where it's at," Prince said.

He's wearing it well.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: ja.adande@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Leaps and Bounds

Tayshaun Prince's statistics at Kentucky as a sophomore, when he was emerging as one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference, and as a junior, a season in which he has become one of the nation's top forwards. Statistics are for regular season.

*--*

Season Min. Pts FG% 3-Pt.% FT% Reb Sophomore 34.0 13.3 .423 .307 .705 6.0 Junior 32.8 17.2 .500 .337 .841 5.5

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