It’s been said at many points this season that so goes Caleb Love, so goes the Tar Heels. In North Carolina wins this season, he’s averaged 16.8 points on 41.2% shooting, while those numbers drop to 11.6 and 25% in losses. Carolina’s four worst losses on the season arguably came in blowout defeats to Kentucky, Miami, Wake Forest, and Duke, all games where Love finished in single digits in points.
In the NCAA Tournament first round game against Marquette, we saw that theory play out on the extremely positive side of that paradigm. As Love went completely off in the opening 20 minutes, so did UNC. The Heels took a 28-point lead into the break, and cruised from there. Thanks to Love, and a good team performance in general, UNC started their NCAA Tournament in perfect fashion, beating the Golden Eagles 95-63.
Love finished the game with 23 points, three rebounds, and an assist. The vast majority of those points came in the first half, as Love nearly outscored Marquette himself. Love dropped 21 in the first 20 minutes, knocking down six threes, and finishing just four points under what the Golden Eagles scored in total in the first. He only added two points to that in the second half, but by all intents and purposes the game was already over. He played the key role as the Heels went into the break leading 53-25, and never looked back from there.
Another mark in his favor was Love keeping it cool, despite Marquette’s rough, to put it politely, play. There were a couple incidents involving him and Marquette’s Darryl Morsell, including one that arguably should’ve been a flagrant foul on Morsell. Love never took the bait and escalated it into something more, and instead just knocked down a couple more threes.
With the final margin what it was, there are some very good other options for player of the game. Love was actually only UNC’s second leading scorer. Brady Manek dropped 28 points, going 10-15 and 5-10 from three, while also grabbing 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, it was another game and therefore another double-double for Armando Bacot, as he put up 17 points and 10 rebounds.
On of the most impressive things about UNC’s win was how well they shared the ball, finishing with 28 assists on 34 made field goals. RJ Davis led the way on that, putting up a career high 12 assists, and not letting an otherwise less than stellar shooting night get in the way. Leaky Black also accounted for another eight assists.
Things are going to get much harder now for Carolina with the region’s #1 seed Baylor waiting for them in the second round. If Caleb Love is as locked in as he was against Marquette, there’s no reason that the Tar Heels can’t go toe-to-toe against the Bears.