Yesterday, we began our salute to the Iron Five by looking at RJ Davis and his incredible run in the NCAA Tournament. Today, we look at his backcourt mate, Caleb Love.
Caleb Love is like the Jeff Hardy of Carolina basketball: he’s a charismatic enigma. He has all of the physical tools needed to succeed at the college level. He curbed his freshman habit of turning the ball over for no apparent reason. His three-point shooting improved dramatically. Yet he still never managed to grab hold of the team with both hands and force his will on other teams… until the NCAA Tournament.
Just as UNC’s potential transformed into production at the end of the season, so too did Caleb become more than a good player. He became an assassin.
Caleb Love was a driving force in Carolina’s opening tournament win against a Marquette team that seemed more interested in testing UNC’s toughness than winning the game. At one point, Caleb was put in a headlock on the ground. Credit his maturity and composure for not knocking out Darryl Morsell, and his explosive first half, for killing the game off before it could ever become interesting. Caleb hit all six of his three-pointers in the first half that helped bury Marquette in a 28-point deficit that they’d never climb out of.
His abbreviated appearance in the Baylor win was on the heels of some iffy foul calls, but he had to sit out that game so RJ Davis could have his turn being the hero. Caleb would take the cape back in the Sweet Sixteen, when he shook off a quiet first half against UCLA (1 for 8, 3 points) and went into full-blown gorilla mode in the second half. Love attacked the rim and hit five big threes, each one more important for the Tar Heels than the last. His threes tied the game, took the lead, and sealed Carolina’s win in a Final Four quality matchup with an excellent UCLA team.
Adding anxiety and suspense to an already historic contest with Duke—Carolina’s first against the Blue Devils in NCAA Tournament history—Love saved his heroics for the end of the game to close out Coach K’s career and send UNC to their third championship game appearance in the last six tournaments. After being held to six first half points, Caleb got it going in the second half, hitting his first four shots for 10 points. In the final three minutes of the game, with Duke up by one point, Caleb knifed through the lane and ghosted around an outstretched Mark Williams to hit a lay-up to go ahead 69-68. After a crazy sequence of Duke-UNC-Duke three-pointers (followed by two clutch free throws from RJ Davis) left Carolina up by one point, Caleb Love got Mark Williams stuck high on a switch with Armando Bacot, and drilled a deep three over the ACC defensive player of the year. The Tar Heels would never look back.
Caleb stands out from the rest of the Iron Five because he embodies moments. He has a compelling narrative. Images of him captured during the NCAA Tournament evoke a visceral reaction among fans. Look at his mouth slobber after draining big three after big three against UCLA, like a wolf sinking its teeth into bone. Look at him cock his arm back before banging in a dunk against Saint Peter’s. Look at him nailing that final three-pointer against Duke, immortalized now forever in NIL merchandise. He had legendary moments that will grow more exaggerated over time, like when he changed shoes at halftime of the UCLA game before stepping on the Bruins’ neck. Caleb Love has a quiet, stoic demeanor, but his action on the court is loud and violent, like a Swanton Bomb through a table.
Caleb will have a tough choice to make in the coming weeks. His NBA Draft position is hardly assured, but surely higher now than it was at the beginning of the season. Could he play his way into a first-round or Lottery lock as the face of college basketball next season? Absolutely! Will he stick around to make that happen? Who knows. But if he does, he could end up like Jeff Hardy at the 2008 WWE Armageddon. Champion.