The Carolina basketball team gave us an unexpectedly incredible conclusion to the 2021-2022 season. When looking back at the Heels’ historic run to the national championship game, there’s one player that sticks out above the rest, and deservedly so. While others contributed in major ways, I’m thinking of the man who put the team on his back in the Sweet Sixteen with 27 second half points and also hit the biggest shot in the history of the UNC-Duke rivalry. That man is Caleb Love.
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After his absurd performances in the tournament, I was certain Love would be a surefire first round pick. While that might’ve been the case, he left nothing up to chance, announcing his return on April 24th. Love was the last of four Carolina starters to make the decision to come back, cementing the Heels as a preseason top five team. While every decision was important, Love’s was the most anticipated because of his NBA potential.
Speaking of, Love has an opportunity to boost his draft stock considerably with a third season in Chapel Hill. Although he’s been streaky at times, after watching UNC in March and April, I can confidently say that Caleb Love’s best is as good as you’ll find in college basketball. Playing with a more aggressive mindset, Love discovered a whole new level to his game down the home stretch. When he takes advantage of his explosiveness and attacks the defense early, his confidence rises and the floor opens up. Once Love has seen the ball go in the bucket a few times, he’s got the guts to take and make shots from just about anywhere on the court.
Last season, Love averaged 15.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 37.1% from the field, 36% from three, and 86.3% from the free throw line. Those percentages are all significant improvements on his freshman year numbers (31.6%, 26.6%, and 80.6%, respectively). It was evident the work he had put in during the offseason to enhance his jumper and round out his game. However, the Tar Heels struggled for a large portion of the season to consistently bring their best effort, and Love’s numbers suffered some as a result. Thus, presuming we get an entire season with everyone on the same page, I believe Love can make another leap in efficiency during his junior campaign.
When addressing Carolina’s struggles last year, I don’t mean to say that Love had nothing to do with them. Rather, the bigger issue was the construction of the lineup/offense and the overall cohesion on the floor. After some tweaks to the offense, Coach Davis unleashed the Iron Five, and everyone started playing at a higher level. For Love, the key was actually handling the ball less. With RJ Davis essentially becoming full-time point guard, Love could focus more on slashing and coming off screens, receiving the ball in positions to score rather than always having to create for himself.
For both Love and Carolina, maintaining that dynamic will be essential to success. Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to seeing more 30 foot pull-up threes in people’s faces, but Love doesn’t get to that point without first working within the offense and finding his rhythm naturally. With so many weapons at the Heels’ disposal, it’s important that Love continues to let the game come to him. Given the chemistry these guys have, I don’t think that will be a problem.
After another full offseason of hard work, I don’t know if college basketball is ready for the junior edition of Caleb Love. Unsurprisingly, Armando Bacot is the Tar Heel generating buzz for player of the year, both nationally and in the ACC. However, Love is a guy who could very easily end up in those conversations come March. With consistent, sustained effort and a championship-level team around him, Love could separate himself as one of the most unguardable players in the country.