Caracter puts issues aside to boost Miners

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Derrick Caracter should be in the NBA right now.

Derrick Caracter has resurrected his career at UTEP.
(Butch Dill / AP Photo)

This much was known as early as 2002, when as an eighth grader in New Jersey he became one of the first two middle schoolers to attend a Nike All-America camp. Internet archives are littered with stories touting the young 6-foot-9 forward as a better prep prospect than Greg Oden or Kevin Durant.

When Oden and Caracter squared off at any number of camps that drew the nation’s elite, it was a stop-everything event. And Caracter, with his wide frame and advanced inside-outside game, would more than hold his own.

It was all there for the taking.

“[Turning pro] was always the plan,” said Caracter, a junior forward who will lead UTEP into a first-round NCAA West Regional game against Butler. “I never thought that I would be in college. Especially being in college this long.”

The first road block went up in 2006.

By then Caracter had lost some ground to his peers. Oden and Durant ranked 1-2 on the final class rankings for 2006. Caracter had slipped to No. 25 – no longer a sure-fire NBA superstar, but still ahead of current pros Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and Marreese Speights, among others.

Teams may well have gambled and drafted Caracter if he decided to turn pro. You can’t teach size, as they say, and Caracter had plenty of it – a 6-foot-9 frame that easily supported 250-plus pounds. He had the touch of a small forward.

But the NBA had other ideas for Caracter. It was during the senior season of a high school career that saw him play for three schools that David Stern raised the age requirement for entering the NBA draft to 19.

Caracter would enroll at Louisville. And things would begin to unravel.

“Derrick, coming out of high school, was immature, spoiled and always a little bit lazy,” said UTEP coach Tony Barbee, who recruited Caracter while an assistant to John Calipari at Memphis.

“We all see 6-foot-9, 275 pounds and we assume right away, ‘Grown man.’ “

He arrived at Louisville out of shape. He began his freshman year by serving a three-game NCAA suspension for accepting a loan from a family friend in the summer of 2005. While some of the weight came off, Louisville coach Rick Pitino wasn’t impressed by Caracter’s work ethic. He was sent home around the holidays in 2006 and his future at the university was in doubt.

Caracter would return for his sophomore season, but it was more of the same. There were academic problems. He had curfew issues. Multiple suspensions were levied. If you ask Pitino, Caracter burned through second chances like a homesick freshman exhausting minutes on a calling card.

“Everyone had a perception of me as a bad guy or a thug,” Caracter recalls.

Derrick Caracter should be playing professional basketball right now.

This much was assumed after Louisville’s 2008 NCAA tournament run ended with an 83-73 loss to North Carolina in the Elite 8. The Tar Heels frontcourt was paced by Tyler Hansbrough, who had 28 points and 13 rebounds. Caracter, playing fewer and fewer minutes as the season progressed, came off the bench and scored two points in five minutes.

Pitino washed his hands of the mess, recommending a “different place” for his once-prized recruit. Stories circulated that Caracter was headed to the pre-NBA draft camp in Orlando. At the very least he could still command a six-figure salary playing professionally overseas.

But here he is, in San Jose, getting ready to face Butler in what could be the final act of the third year of a college career he once thought would never begin.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity being back in college basketball,” Caracter said. “Just to be able to show my talents again.”

Barbee remembered those talents when he was first approached by Caracter. But he also remembered a kid who was always a little spoiled, always making some bad decisions.

The coach admits that the first question he had for Caracter when the subject of enrolling at UTEP came up was “why?” Like everyone else, the coach assumed Caracter would cash in on his immense potential – tainted as it may have been after two disappointing and tumultuous seasons at Louisville – by turning pro.

Derrick Caracter had a dismal two-year stint at Louisville before transferring to UTEP.
(Getty Images)

Their initial conversation put the coach at ease.

“He understood that all the wounds that were inflicted upon him at his previous stop were self-inflicted,” Barbee said. “He didn’t point fingers or blame anybody else.

“I thought he had a chance to turn a corner. He’s grown up. He’s matured. He’s shaken the lazy label since being around me. Everything I’ve seen, he’s been one of the hardest workers on our team.”

By the time he appeared in his first game in a Miners uniform on Dec. 13, 2009, it had been more than 20 months since his last competitive action. He played 12 minutes in a loss to New Mexico State.

Caracter followed that with a string of four straight double-double games. He joined the starting lineup and was instrumental in helping UTEP win 14 straight, averaging 13.8 points and eight rebounds in 26 games. The Miners’ regular-season ended with a dunk by Caracter with one second remaining that delivered a 52-50 win over UAB.

The second team All-Conference USA selection is a big reason why many smell upset in this matchup between the 12th-seeded Miners and the Bulldogs, a No. 5 seed in the West.

Butler coach Brad Stevens describes the task of dealing with UTEP’s frontline size as “very challenging.” Caracter isn’t his only issue. There’s also 6-11 sophomore Arnett Moultrie, himself a double-digit scorer. Butler has a hard time viewing this as a 5-12 game.

“There is no doubt about it, Derrick Caracter is a fantastic player,” Stevens said. “Everybody has known about him and the rise that he’s been on since eighth or ninth grade.

“I think he’s a guy that everybody has been well aware of how talented he is. Everybody that I know has targeted him as a future pro forever.”

Derrick Caracter may very well play in the NBA some day soon.

He insists he’s not looking back, not to his Louisville days – though he will admit the experience “does drive me to keep succeeding” – and not to those old prep showdowns with Oden.

He’s a leader now, an unthinkable notion not too long ago given how his Louisville demise unfolded. He’s a two-time NCAA tournament veteran on a team of wide-eyed novices, telling his UTEP mates what to expect during this “experience of your lifetime.”

He’s made a positive impact on the program, Busbee said, and the lazy kid who Pitino admitted was a thorn in his side sets an example by hitting the gym after practices, at home and on the road.

Caracter has an Elite 8 ring but he wants more. He wants to “try to make this a special season.” In many ways it already is for a program making just its third trip to the big dance since 1992.

“We’re happy to be here,” junior guard Julyan Stone said. “Derrick has been here, but since me and Randy [Culpepper] came in our freshman year we’ve always dreamed about being at this point.

“For us to finally accomplish that, we’re proud to actually be a part of something like this.”

Caracter won’t yet discuss his plans beyond this season. He does say he hopes to meet Oden at “the next level” someday. Win or lose Thursday in San Jose, a decision on just when that opportunity might arise isn’t far off.

For the first time, it’ll be a decision Caracter can make on his own terms.

Matt Romig is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Matt a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 17, 2010