Almost a year later, Caleb Love is still working on an encore
CHAPEL HILL, NC — Caleb Love was having a tough evening.
The junior guard was one of two Tar Heels named to the midseason Wooden Award list earlier in the day, but on the floor on this night, Love was a mess. He was just 1-6 from the floor and his defense was suspect too, as he got lost going under screens on a pair of big NC State 3-pointers.
North Carolina and NC State were locked in a nip and tuck game in the second half, and the Wolfpack had just cut the lead to a point, and the pockets of red inside the Dean E. Smith Center were growing louder, sensing a shift in the game’s momentum.
In a building where legends are honored and remembered constantly, from the pregame introduction video where none other than Michael Jordan, his Airness himself, proclaims, “This is Carolina Basketball” to the first half announcement that Roy Williams, 1993 national champions George Lynch and Eric Montross, and the great Mitch Kupchak are courtside, excellence isn’t just an expectation. It’s omnipresent, always waiting for the next great moment.
Still trying to find the game, Love came around a dribble hand-off and began to dribble downhill. Help appeared to come as he got inside the elbow, but Love pulled up anyway, always unafraid. He buried the shot, and the Smith Center came to life. Love’s unlikely make was 1 of just 3 shots he made all night, but it started a big North Carolina run that separated the Tar Heels from their Raleigh rivals. NC State never got within a point again, and Love, who finished the game 3-for-14, was the guy who made the shot that started the big run.
That’s Caleb Love. The guy who makes the shot.
Love is already canonized in Carolina lore for hitting one shot, that shot, last April. The one that ended Mike Krzyzewski’s career and sent North Carolina to the national championship game. The second biggest shot in Carolina history. The one that, at barbeque joints and Sunday School coffee breaks and in Charlotte C-suites sparks “Where were you when?” conversations.
Caleb Love’s dagger against Duke.
The shot that gave Carolina its second win in a row on Duke, sent them home from the Final Four and Coach K into retirement. pic.twitter.com/GEJt2a6GfF https://t.co/Vc7FG1yVBh
— Veezy World Peace 🌎 (@NotoriousVIC007) October 17, 2022
Nine months later, as another date with Duke nears, Love is struggling to write the next chapter, the encore.
Carolina fans rejoiced when Love announced he’d return for his junior season, and anticipation grew when Love won MVP honors at Formula Zero, the prestigious, invite-only camp for rising college players held by NBA star Damian Lillard.
The rest? It’s been a battle. But Love will always have The Shot.
Love is Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.
Some nights Love is molten lava, a fire so hot he eviscerates all he touches and his team faces. Other nights? He sputters and coughs like a 79 Pinto, a well-intentioned model, sturdy and unafraid but never a comfortable ride.
At the Final Four last April? Love was a meteor, or in Duke’s case, an asteroid, hurling through space toward an event horizon that came on a late shot clock explosion with just 25 seconds to play.
“I guess I live for the big moment,” Love told the media last April, still speaking in hushed tones but grinning in the bowels of the Superdome, where he stole center stage from Krzyzewski, who instead of closing his storied coaching career with a date for the national championship exited stage right, forever.
That’s Caleb Love. Scene stealer. Capable of the extraordinary, even when you least expect it.
And there’s the (Carolina Blue) devilish little secret, the one that North Carolina fans know but don’t speak out loud, even as Love and the Tar Heels ready for their first contest against Duke in 2023, the first since The Shot, the first in over four decades without Mike Krzyzewski: North Carolina is still a team that will go as far as Caleb Love goes.
“Caleb wants the big shots,” Hubert Davis said this week, coming as close to anyone to admitting that despite the consistent brilliance of RJ Davis and the all-time Carolina greatness of Armando Bacot, it is the enigmatic Love who stirs the drink. “There aren’t many guys like Caleb, who seek those shots out.”
To a cynic, or, if we’re being basketball honest, a by-the-book analytics guy — college basketball’s version of a great accountant — Love is an object lesson in the difference between bad shot selection and great scorers who are volume shooters. In a sport that increasingly rewards the best shot, not the next available shot, Love consistently takes the next available shot.
Sometimes, that means he drops 28 points in a half, like he did in last season’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA. Other times he flails and flounders around for a half, like he did in the first half of the same Sweet 16 game vs. UCLA (2 points) and as he did again in Carolina’s 80-69 win over NC State on Jan. 21, going scoreless in the first half until he connected on a 3, with the game tied, naturally, to stake the Tar Heels to a 33-30 advantage just before halftime.
There’s the freshman version of Love, who became the first Power 6 player to take 300 shots and shoot 32% from the floor and 27% from beyond the arc. Then there’s the NCAA Tournament version, who averaged 18.9 points per game and shot 39% from deep in a stunning 6 game-run from 8 seed to national title game.
But it’s Love’s capacity and audacity to keep playing and shooting, to be, as Ted Lasso might say, a goldfish, that makes Love as scintillating and special as he can be seismically frustrating. It’s that skill that allowed Love to storm back from a miserable opening 15 minutes against Duke last April to score 28 points and lead UNC to an everlasting, come-from-behind win.
For Caleb Love, confident shots are good shots.
He made five jumpers against Duke, taking what the defense gave him. Three were off the catch within the flow of the offense, and two were off the bounce, with Love utilizing a PNR or snatchback to create separation. pic.twitter.com/I4CymAtQMd
— Trevor William Marks (@twmarks_) February 7, 2021
Even Love’s seemingly boundless confidence has been tested this season.
Love is shooting just 28% from beyond the arc, closer to his 27% freshman number than his bounce back 36% a season ago, and he’s now working hard with Carolina assistant Jeff Lebo to get his shot back. The work is paying off, as Love started 3-for-3 from 3-point range in last week’s win at Syracuse and finished above 50-percent shooting from the field for the first time in 10 games, since UNC’s Dec. 13 blowout of The Citadel. He had 22 points (12 on 4 3-pointers) Wednesday in a tough loss against Pitt.
Love has also added wrinkles to his game this season, including a pretty hesitation hang dribble that makes his burst and speed all the more lethal when he gets in the paint. These improvements have kept his shooting percentage above water from inside the arc.
It’s Love’s jump shot, though, not his ability to float like a butterfly with the ball or glide past defenders in transition, that is the stuff of Carolina-Duke lore and what makes him so valuable to his team. Getting confidence in that shot again just as Duke looms? That’s either fortuitous timing or classic Caleb, depending on whom you ask.
Love has feasted against the Blue Devils, too. In his otherwise disappointing freshman campaign, where Love too often, in his own words, “played sped up and out of control, forcing things,” Love averaged 21.5 points and 7 assists per game against Duke while shooting 54.5% from deep. As a sophomore, Love averaged a team-high 19.7 points per game against Duke with 3.6 assists and 4 rebounds per contest. The Tar Heels won 2 of the 3 games, and while Love only shot 27% from deep in those 3 contests, he was fearless enough to hit the shot.
“If you didn’t watch Caleb constantly, you’d struggle to understand him,” RJ Davis opined to me at ACC Media Days. “But he’s our guy, right? When the moment is biggest and brightest, he just has a calm about him. He is well-equipped for the moment. He was born for it, one of the few. He could be 2-for-10 and he’s just going to make a play.”
A canvas of Love “just making a play” — hitting the shot over Mark Williams’ hopelessly outstretched arm — now hangs in Hubert Davis’ office. It backs up what RJ Davis said about his teammate, even if the numbers this season are grim and Love’s extra work, born of frustration and a crisis of confidence suggest Love is still grinding, battling, and figuring out who he can be.
Not many members of the exclusive canon of Carolina basketball saints are still works in progress.
Then again, Caleb Love has never been much like anyone else.
That’s part of what makes him so captivating.
Come Saturday, in another big moment, you can bet Love will be ready.