The Great Talent Migration

Don't whistle them for traveling. These peripatetic players are having an outsized impact on their respective teams this season, and their new coaches couldn't be happier
January 18, 2010

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

As a freshman at Duke last season, Elliot Williams was living his dream. The powerful 6'4" guard was playing for an esteemed coach and getting a topflight education; by the end of the season he was even starting. But when Williams visited his parents in Memphis over spring break, his mother, Delois, asked him to move home. She was suffering from a serious illness—the nature and severity of which the family has kept private—and she wanted him nearby. "That's all it took," Elliot says.

He got a release from Duke in June, and soon after that his father, Mexwayne, contacted new Memphis coach Josh Pastner to set up a meeting. Pastner agreed to let Williams live at home, and on Aug. 2 the NCAA granted a hardship waiver allowing Williams to play immediately. For Pastner, a former Memphis assistant who was left with just six healthy scholarship players in the wake of coach John Calipari's departure for Kentucky (two starters bolted for the pros, while two others graduated, and four prized recruits went elsewhere), Williams's arrival and his willingness to be the go-to player has been a godsend. "But it's bittersweet," says Pastner. "You're getting a kid based on a situation that's not good."

Williams is making the most of his return to Memphis, leading the 11--4 Tigers with 19.9 points a game and spending as much time as possible with Delois, who has made it to every home game. "She always calls me before games to say the things moms say," says Williams. "Have fun, don't think too hard about what you're doing." So far that hasn't been a problem. "I'm going through a lot emotionally," Williams says, "but when I play basketball my mind is free."

THE SAVIOR

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has never been a big fan of transfers—"There's always a reason [for them]," he likes to say—and he's had just four in his 34 years as coach. That's why Boeheim was "iffy," according to Orange assistant Rob Murphy, when he first heard that 6'7" forward Wes Johnson was leaving Iowa State after two years. (He would later say that his relationship with Cyclones coach Greg McDermott "was no longer there.")

Murphy did some research anyway. He learned that Johnson had led the Big 12 in offensive rebounding per game as a freshman and averaged a team-high 12.4 points as a sophomore while playing with a stress fracture in his left foot. And he had range: In two years he had made 79 three-pointers. Murphy asked a friend at Oklahoma to send a scouting "cut-up" of Johnson. It was no highlight tape—in McDermott's structured offense Johnson set and came off a lot of screens, and on this tape he missed a lot of shots—"but I could see the guy was a potential pro," says Murphy.

Yet it wasn't until Boeheim ran into McDermott at a Nike event in June 2008 and heard from him that Johnson was a good kid who went to class that Boeheim gave Murphy clearance to arrange a campus visit. (Transfers are allowed five visits, which are paid for by interested schools.) Johnson was so taken with the university, the staff and the system that 48 hours after his visit later that month he canceled trips to Pitt, West Virginia and Ohio State and committed to the Orange. "I fell in love with it all," says Johnson, who hails from Corsicana, Texas. "Not everybody gets to play for a Hall of Fame coach."

Syracuse's three top scorers, Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, went pro after last season, leaving a gaping need for a multidimensional scorer. Johnson has flourished in Boeheim's freewheeling offense—he leads the team with 17.4 points (it helps that he's hitting 48.1% from behind the arc) and 8.9 rebounds a game—and he is the biggest reason that Syracuse, unranked in the preseason, is now an NCAA title contender. "Without Wes," says Murphy, "I don't know where we'd be."

THE VAGABOND

Kevin O'Neill knows where his 10--6 Trojans would be without 6'1", 180-pound point guard Mike Gerrity: near the bottom of a subpar Pac-10, which is where experts predicted they would finish the season.

There was little reason to expect better. Three USC starters went pro in April, and coach Tim Floyd quit in June amid allegations that he had given $1,000 to a rep of former Trojans star O.J. Mayo. With NCAA sanctions looming, most of the recruiting class vanished. O'Neill, the new coach, was left with a motley collection of players, only one of whom was a true point guard, and he had never heard of Gerrity.

Like O'Neill, who is on his eighth head-coaching gig, Gerrity had bounced around. After a WCC freshman-of-the-year season at Pepperdine in 2005--06, he left when coach Paul Westphal was fired. He thought he had found a good fit at Charlotte, but after averaging 4.7 points and 3.5 assists in 26 games during the 2007--08 season, he transferred again. "I just didn't feel I was ever going to play to my potential there," he says. When he learned that he couldn't transfer to even a D-II school without sitting out another year and that a handful of exhibition games in Canada that summer had cost him yet another year of eligibility, Gerrity considered the NAIA. But then he got a call from Floyd. Gerrity had just one semester of eligibility left. Would he like to spend it at a Pac-10 school near his hometown of Yorba Linda? "It was a no-brainer," he says.

Gerrity arrived in January 2009 and began his second year of NCAA penance, paying his own way for a semester and grinding through the 48 credits he'd need to become eligible. ("Every time you transfer, you lose units," he says.) When the Mayo crisis hit in the summer, he was hurt but unfazed. "It was just one more thing to deal with," he says.

The Trojans went 4--4 before Gerrity finally suited up on Dec. 19. Playing in his first game in 21 months, he scored 12 points and had 10 assists as the Trojans upset ninth-ranked Tennessee 77--55. "We lose that game by 25 if he's not playing," says O'Neill. "He's impossible to pressure." Gerrity's calm leadership helped the Trojans to six straight wins.

Then, another blow: On Jan. 3 USC announced it was sanctioning itself as a result of the Mayo mess, and the measures included a ban on postseason play. Gerrity was crushed to learn he'd have just 16 more games to play. But he remains positive: After a lot of false starts he is finally realizing his potential. "I couldn't be happier," Gerrity says. "On my last try I found the right opportunity."

Now on SI.com

See how these teams fare in Luke Winn's Power Rankings at SI.com/cbb

"I'm blessed that I found this second opportunity," says Caracter of his transfer to UTEP.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSELLIOT WILLIAMS PHOTOAL TIELEMANSWES JOHNSON PHOTOMATT A. BROWN/ICON SMIMIKE GERRITY PHOTOGREG NELSONDERRICK CARACTER PHOTOAL TIELEMANSCHARGING AHEAD Williams (with ball) and Johnson (center) have given their new programs a push. PHOTOFRANK VICTORES/US PRESSWIRE PHOTORICHARD C. LEWIS/ICON SMI PHOTOANDREW HANCOCK PHOTOMICHAEL MCATEE/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL PHOTOGREG NELSON PHOTOGRAY QUETTI/CAL SPORT MEDIA PHOTOANDREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY SANJAY PROGRESS/AP PHOTOMATT COHEN/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL PHOTOALAN MAGLAQUE/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL PHOTOSAM SHARPE/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOSAM GREENWOOD/GETTY IMAGES

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