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UNC Basketball: The complicated legacy of Caleb Love

The St. Louis native gave it his best shot with the Tar Heels, and now he is taking his talents elsewhere.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at N.C. State Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been said a few times before, but I will say it one more time for the record: I don’t know that there has ever been a Carolina basketball player as polarizing as Caleb Love. During his time in Chapel Hill, he was the living embodiment of “You’ll love me until you hate me, and then you will love me again,” and ultimately he gave us the best and worst memories during his three-year stay. It all begs the question of how should we remember Love, and will time heal those who were ready to pack his bags themselves?

Let’s start with the obvious: Love didn’t have a great start to his Carolina career. During his freshman campaign, Love finished the season averaging 10.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.6 assists, and 3.1 turnovers per game. He arrived on campus with the point guard title, but really his game always felt like he is more of a combo guard/shooting guard, which is the kind of thing Roy Williams loved. While averaging 10.5 points per game isn’t anything to scoff at when it comes to freshmen, the issue was in his efficiency: he was 31.6% from the field that season, and 26.6% from deep. Despite his struggles shooting the ball, he scored a total of 43 points to sweep Duke, and helped lead the team to the NCAA Tournament as an 8-seed before losing to Wisconsin in the opening round.

When Hubert Davis was hired as the new head coach, it felt like his scheme would be more of Love’s bag than Williams’ had been. Davis’ scheme is more perimeter-oriented, which means more spacing, which means Love would be able to play inside-out and be a lot more efficient on the floor. When it comes to perimeter shooting, Love’s efficiency shot up to 36%, which complimented RJ Davis and Brady Manek nicely and gave Armando Bacot a lot of room to operate in the paint. Teams didn’t want to sell out to defend Bacot because they knew the ball would end up in the hands of one of those three guys, and when teams did sell out, Love helped make them pay.

We know the rest of the story here, right? UNC got all the way to the Final Four behind stellar perimeter play, and Love was a key part of that. His performances against Marquette, UCLA, and Duke were arguably the best performances of his career, and it helps that he was able to put a nail in the Blue Devils’ coffin by nailing a clutch three-pointer over Mark Williams. That single highlight perhaps more than anything is something that will stay with Carolina fans for the rest of their lives, and although they lost to Kansas in the national title game, it felt like Love & co. were in a great position to run it back in 2022-23. Unfortunately for everyone involved, that’s not how things went.

I’ve said it on the What in Tar Nation podcast a number of times, but I will say it here: it really felt like the Heels were having their own auditions for NBA scouts to start the season. It didn’t seem like real plays were being ran, we saw a lot of iso, and we saw a lot of bad shooting selection. Love was arguably the biggest offender of shooting really questionable shots from deep early in the season—in the games against College of Charleston and James Madison, Love made just two of his 15 three-point attempts. That wasn’t the first time that we saw him shoot that poorly from deep, and it most certainly wasn’t the last. Love ended up finishing the season shooting 29.9% from the perimeter, and 37.8% from the floor overall.

While three-point shooting fell off of a cliff, Love’s decision-making at the point guard position left a lot to be desired, and both issues really went hand-in-hand. There were countless times where we saw him go into iso and try to drain a shot from NBA range, and there were other times when he just really should’ve made an extra pass instead of catching and shooting. I’ve always felt like this isn’t because Love doesn’t know how to make smarter decisions, but that he wanted to make his weaknesses his strengths. I will never say that Love is a great three-point shooter, but he is a good shooter. It always felt like he wanted to be great, but even the greatest shooters in basketball history knew that everything starts and ends with being smart, getting to the rim when possible, and always looking for the extra pass.

I’m sure that at this point it sounds like I am blaming the demise of the Tar Heels on Love, that cannot be farther from the truth. I think this team missed Brady Manek desperately, and Love is no exception. With RJ Davis hurting his hand during the season and Bacot getting swarmed in the paint, teams knew that Love was going to take as many shots from deep as possible because sometimes that was the only choice. It also is worth noting that Love averaged a team-high 35.8 minutes per game, which is a number that tells a few different stories. The primary storyline that concerned me the most was Hubert Davis’ reluctance to pull Love and coach him on the bench when he was playing poorly. It always felt like Davis wanted him to shoot through the pain, and ultimately that did more harm than good. At the end of the day, Tar Heel players, coaches, and staff underperformed this season, and it’s unfair to put all of the blame on the recent transfer.

At the end of the day, it is not my job to tell fans how to feel about Caleb Love. I can’t fault anybody for being frustrated with his play at times during his Carolina career, but I also think there was a lot of good that should be remembered. It felt like everyone was looking for one or two people to blame for the team’s issues, but it’s just not fair to put it all on Love. This is the guy that went 4-3 against Duke during his career, helped the Heels go on a Final Four run, and likely would be a national champion if a few more plays went in the Heels’ favor against Kansas. When Love was fun to watch, he was really fun to watch. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of moments during the 2022-23 season weren’t very fun, but at this point it is what it is.

The legacy of Caleb Love will forever be one of the most complicated legacies in Carolina basketball history for those that lived through it, but to future generations he will just be the Carolina legend that hit a game-ending shot against Duke in their first ever meeting in the Final Four. We all will choose to remember him differently, and honestly that’s ok. What’s important is that even though he is transferring, he is STILL a Tar Heel, and he gave us memories that will last the rest of our lives. Best of luck to him in whatever he does next, and when his college career is done, I hope that the NBA is waiting for him on the other side.