The transformation of UTEP's Derrick Caracter from an immature, undisciplined underachiever to one of the sport's great redemption stories can be explained by the huge smile you see in the picture above.
He's having fun playing basketball again.
When Louisville severed ties with Caracter in 2008 after two lackluster years marred by attitude, weight and academic woes, the ultra-talented big man admits he'd grown so weary of being berated about his lack of work ethic that his passion for basketball started to erode. He has responded better to the more laid-back atmosphere at UTEP, helping lead the Miners to a surprise NCAA tournament berth by dedicating himself to working harder and eating healthier the way he never did at Louisville.
"At Louisville, basketball was becoming un-fun," Caracter said by phone on Monday. "My mom always told me to enjoy college, and I just wasn't enjoying college with the strictness on my weight and the discipline overall. Now I'm at a program where my coach and I, our personalities click a little more. He allows me to be myself, have fun with the guys, speak up and be a team leader."
Whether its a result of Caracter's newfound commitment or UTEP coach Tony Barbee's ability to reach him, the enigmatic big man has revamped his lifestyle since enrolling at the school in January 2009. He hustles back on defense and dives after loose balls. He maintains his eligibility in the classroom. And he's slimmed down to about 280 pounds by putting more effort into working out and eating healthier, even abstaining from childhood favorites like General Tso's chicken or cream cheese and wheat thins.
You have every right to be skeptical considering Caracter's past mistakes, but consider the results for a moment. Caracter and Randy Culpepper have propelled UTEP to a 15-1 conference record and an outright league title, the speedy guard scoring 18 points a game and the intimidating big man chipping in 13.8 points and a team-high 8 rebounds.
"I understand what's at stake, what I need to do, what I need to take care of if I want to take my game to the next level," Caracter said. "I'm trying to be an all-around good guy. I'm trying to be a team player. I'm trying to help and encourage others by sharing my mistakes and the things that I learned at my previous school."
It would have been no surprise to anyone if Caracter's time in the basketball spotlight ended after he left Louisville considering just how spectacularly he flamed out as a member of that program. Hyped as a can't-miss talent even before he outshined Greg Oden at a Reebok camp in 2005, Caracter developed poor work habits and ballooned to 320 pounds by the time he arrived at Louisville.
He showed flashes of potential at Louisville but also angered Rick Pitino to the point that the Cardinals coach repeatedly publicly questioned his commitment and once had Caracter sign a contract stipulating what he needed to do to remain with the team. Caracter was indefinitely suspended after breaking that the next day, missing a 9 p.m. curfew by an hour and then sneaking out later in the night again.
"He just has too many issues to overcome, academically and otherwise, to be a Louisville Cardinal," Pitino told the Louisville Courier Journal when he dismissed Caracter from the team. "The best thing for him would be to go to a different place."
So far, that place has been UTEP.
The 12th-seeded Miners are a trendy upset pick against fifth-seeded Butler, but they'll need Caracter to out-play foul-prone Bulldogs center Matt Howard if they're going to have a chance to win.
"We still have a lot to prove," Caracter said. "I'm looking forward to it."