Since middle school in aptly named Fanwood, N.J., Derrick Caracter had been accustomed to adulation. When he was proclaimed one of the top players in a college recruiting class that included Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, friends gathered around him like remoras, counting his NBA millions for him, whispering advice. But when he left Louisville in 2008 after two rocky seasons, "all those people scattered," Caracter says. "That definitely helped clear my head."
Like scores of other basketball players whose dazzling visions of success were not fulfilled at their first choice of colleges, Caracter decided to start over at another school. "I couldn't let somebody else determine what my future would be, so I took a leap of faith and decided to try this again, pick another school, try for a fresh start," says Caracter, who is now starring at UTEP. "Getting a second opinion never hurts."
The reasons for leaving a program are as varied as the several hundred players who change Division I schools every year. "Sometimes people jump into something they aren't quite sure [of]," says USC coach Kevin O'Neill. "[As in] a bad marriage, suddenly they want out." But how to choose a new partner? It doesn't always work out the second time around, either. But this year the stars have aligned for a surprising number of teams, whose newly eligible transfers are repainting the national title picture.
THE PROBLEM CHILD
Lazy. Coddled. Troubled. Washed up. Caracter has heard all those and worse. In two tumultuous seasons at Louisville the 6'9" forward flouted team rules and clashed with coach Rick Pitino over his ballooning weight, inconsistent effort and dismal schoolwork. After he was declared academically ineligible in the spring of 2008, Pitino called him "a major thorn in my side" and suggested he go elsewhere. Caracter, who had averaged just 8.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 16 minutes in two seasons, obliged, flirting with the NBA draft before disappearing off the radar. Six months later, this time without a formal press conference, he resurfaced at UTEP, where coach Tony Barbee offered him a second chance. Barbee had recruited Caracter out of high school when the coach was an assistant at Memphis. "I knew Derrick wasn't a bad kid," says Barbee. "His issues at Louisville were about immaturity. He understands his wounds were self-inflicted."
Caracter's detractors might not recognize him now. After arriving in El Paso a year ago weighing more than 300 pounds, he is now at 275 and, he says, "on my way to 265." In fact, Barbee says, "he has become our hardest worker." Last summer Barbee would arrive at his office at 8 a.m. every day and usually find Caracter already in the gym.
It wasn't a single epiphany that jarred Caracter into taking his talent seriously. "At Louisville, I didn't have as close a relationship with God as I do now," he says. "I think that has helped me to stay levelheaded and to understand what I want in life."
Caracter's game has blossomed anew in El Paso, where he is averaging 14.3 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds for the 10--4 Miners. "He is one of the smartest basketball players I've ever been around," says Barbee. "And there aren't a lot of guys who are 6'9", 275 pounds and move like a 6-foot, 160-pound guard." But for all his gifts, what has most endeared Caracter to fans is his willingness to dive for loose balls and take charges, another category in which he leads the team. "He's driven to win; that's what has made us good," says Barbee.
Caracter is also driven to become the lottery pick he was projected to be four years ago. "I'm blessed that I found this place and this second opportunity," he says. "I told my family and friends, I won't let them down this time."
THE HOMETOWN HERO