CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The most talented player in the building is sitting by himself in the corner of the locker room. He has finally made it to the big stage, only to find he no longer has a starring role.
By now, Derrick Caracter should have a slew of honors. Listen to the whispers and you'll hear he has more potential than Tyler Hansbrough, the North Carolina junior with all the player of the year awards.
By now, Caracter was going to be a breakout star on ESPN. You know, not so long ago, he was considered by many to be more polished than Greg Oden, who went No. 1 in last year's NBA draft.
Yes sir, by now, Caracter was going to be leading Louisville to the Final Four. Well, the Cardinals are two victories away, but Caracter is not the one directing the charge. In fact, he's not even in the starting lineup.
They show up out of nowhere. Players of little pedigree from schools of little renown, and for a few days in March they hold the nation's attention. The shooter who hits a 3 at the buzzer. The gangly kid in the middle who swats away the winning shot before it can find net.
These are the charmers of the NCAA Tournament, the players you've never heard of before and will probably never see again.
But, for every Cinderella story on the court, there is a stepsister stewing in the wings. A favored child who, despite all the advantages, somehow made all the wrong choices.
Which brings us back to Derrick Caracter, a charming, handsome young man with a gift for playing basketball and a knack for screwing up.
There is little doubt he was the jewel of Rick Pitino's recruiting class two years ago, but now the Louisville coach is practically leaving a trail of bread crumbs for Caracter to follow to the NBA.
"I wish I had done a couple of things differently," Caracter said, sitting at his locker with a bag of ice on each knee after a Wednesday afternoon practice. "It would have been nice to play more, but you have to fill whatever role your coach asks you to fill."
In this case, that means coming off the bench. And not always as the first substitute. Caracter averaged about 17 minutes this season, which is less than seven of his teammates.
This is not the role anyone envisioned, but it is the one Caracter has earned.
So how could it have gone so wrong?
You could start with Caracter showing up on campus as a freshman, about 40 pounds overweight at 318. He was suspended for the first three games of his college career for NCAA violations. Two months into the season, Pitino told Caracter to go home to New Jersey and rethink his future.
When he returned, Caracter signed a contract pledging to be a better teammate and more dedicated player and student. Before season's end, he was suspended again.
"He knows right from wrong," Pitino said earlier this year. "He just chooses wrong all the time."
The pattern had not changed at all by the start of his sophomore season. Pitino said he was ready to suspend Caracter indefinitely, but players talked him out of it because the team's frontcourt was so banged up.
So Pitino, once again, made Caracter sign a contract. One of the stipulations was that Caracter would abide by a nightly curfew. Hours after signing the contract, Caracter came in after curfew. And then sneaked out again.
The reason Caracter seemed so cavalier about rules and authority is the same reason Pitino could not bring himself to kick the 6-8 power forward off the team:
It's because he had a world of talent.
For most of his life, Caracter has gotten by on his smile and his basketball skills. He's not malicious and he's not without a conscience, but his level of immaturity is astounding.
Caracter bounced around from high school to high school and was labeled a lazy and a selfish player, but Pitino and others were always willing to overlook it because the potential was so tantalizing.
Sitting in the Charlotte Bobcats Arena, it seemed Caracter was finally beginning to realize the cost of his transgressions. Two years ago, he was considered a certain lottery pick. Now that Pitino has made it clear he does not want him back in 2008-09, Caracter is looking like a second-round pick this summer.
The suspensions, the lack of loyalty to the team and the weight issues have literally cost Caracter millions of dollars.
"Beginning in ninth or 10th grade I was hopping from school to school, then I had my issues here as a freshman and again this year," Caracter said. "So people are going to have their opinions about me, I know that. It's just about me getting back in the right state of mind. It's about getting in the gym and getting it right.
"Coach P has been to the Final Four a bunch, he's been in the NBA, he knows what it takes. He's given me the right tools and he's worked to make me a better person. So I think I'm ready to go."
Maybe this was the lesson Caracter needed to learn. Maybe he needed to see Louisville succeed without him in the lineup to understand that talent is not enough. That teamwork and dedication play a crucial role.
By night's end, Caracter's college career may be through. He was not the player he could have been, but he seems to understand the fault is his own. And he grasps the idea that the next chance may be his last.
Maybe, in a way, he got a college education, after all.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]