In middle school, Derrick Caracter was a 6'9" and 286 pound basketball prodigy. He was the first middle-school athlete to ever be invited the the Nike All-American camps. The over-sized teen sensation had a personal trainer, squatted 350 lbs. on one leg, and was worshiped as a future NBA star. Coming out of high school, Caracter was a Top 25 national recruit. His combination of size and athleticism, and incredible performances at camps, led Rick Pitino to make him the centerpiece of his 2006 recruiting class. At Louisville, Caracter was never arrested or charged with a crime. His problems stemmed from perceived attitude problems, laziness, and personal conflicts with Pitino. Consequently, DC left Louisville after two disappointing seasons. (Note: Mike Rutherford, at the excellent Card Chronicle, wrote a fantastic article summing up the problems that plagued Caracter at UL).
We all know what happened next. After transferring to UTEP, Caracter sat out the 2008-2009 season . Tony Barbee recruited Caracter when he was coaching under John Calipari at Memphis and the two had a good relationship. After sitting out the season's first five games, Derrick's season kicked off with a rocky start. UTEP was undefeated and playing well, but the chemistry was off in his first game and the Miners fell at home to rival New Mexico State. He only played twelve minutes, but he had three personal fouls.
Next up, UTEP traveled to then ranked Ole Miss. UTEP lost in overtime, but Miner fans finally caught a glimpse of his athleticism and strength. Caracter had a monster double-double, 15 points and 15 rebounds, in 32 minutes of play. He fouled out, and the Miners lost on the road, but it was clear that if Derrick had finally matured the way we'd been told he had, he could be a force for the Miners. He would have a double-double in UTEP's next four games.
Fast Forward to March
Whenever you insert a new player into a veteran team you can't be sure how the team will react to the changes the new player causes. Many players lost minutes. One, lost a starting job. If the Miners incredible 13 game winning streak has shown us anything, it's that this team has overcome any chemistry issues that may have arisen when Derrick entered the lineup.
Randy Culpepper has grown into a team player, a guy who can step up and be the primary scoring option when he has to, but knows when to slow it down and let somebody else be the main scoring threat as well. When Derrick draws double-teams, he opens things up for Jeremy Williams to step up and become a legitimate third scoring option. Julyan Stone has had some struggles, but has been masterful at distributing the ball to the hot hand every night. Arnett Moultrie has had some off-shooting nights (see 1/11 against Marshall) but he has embraced his new place on the team as a role player who fills the corners of the stat-sheet every night. He is playing opportunistic basketball.
The team's chemistry has only improved over the last six weeks. If Randy or Derrick are off one night, somebody always seems to be waiting in the wings to step up. If Derrick or Randy are on, Moultrie and Williams don't mind taking a back seat on offense. Julyan doesn't care if he gets a shot off, he just wants to find the open guy and run the offense. Some say winning cures all ills, but often times winning teams can be plagued by problems stemming from inflated egos and jealousy. This team, so far as I can tell, doesn't have those issues.
Last night, I was blown away by Caracter's competitiveness. The problems that put him in Rick Pitino's doghouse were gone. He didn't loaf. He didn't take plays off on defense. He was facing a sure-fire NBA lottery pick, in front of a score of NBA scouts, and he used the opportunity to show them all that he can be as dominant as they all thought he'd be when they first saw him as a confident, powerful 6'9" middle school prodigy.
There were so many incredible exchanges that showed how much Caracter wants to bury the past. Early on, Hassan Whiteside rejected a Caracter shot and launched the ball into a Marshall fast break. Caracter didn't complain about a no-call (it looked like there might have been contact). Rather, he sprinted down the court and rejected the ensuing Marshall lay-up into the UTEP bench.
More than that, he isn't just playing hard when there are scouts at a game or when he's facing a guy that gets more press than he does. He's been coming to play every night. In twenty-two games, he's been in double digits 18 times and had seven double-doubles. Obviously, last night was special for him. He wasn't going to let Hassan Whiteside get the last laugh in front of a packed house. He wasn't going to let limited minutes, due to early foul trouble, stop him from taking over the game in crunch time. The amazing thing is, this guy has played 22 games in two seasons. He's still getting his groove back. The only question now is: What's next?