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Wednesday October 5th

'Not just about me': Caleb Love expanded his game to become who he was destined to be

Sophomore guard Caleb Love (2) listens to coach Hubert Davis during a timeout at UNC basketball's home game against Virginia Tech on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, at the Dean Smith Center. UNC won 78-68.
Buy Photos Sophomore guard Caleb Love (2) listens to coach Hubert Davis during a timeout at UNC basketball's home game against Virginia Tech on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, at the Dean Smith Center. UNC won 78-68.

Caleb Love's first season as a Tar Heel didn't go exactly as planned.

The explosive five-star guard and McDonald's all-American was slated to be a one-and-done first-round NBA draft pick after his first year. Instead, he had historically poor shooting performances, with his 31.6 percent shooting rate being the lowest among any Tar Heel player with more than 100 career made field goals. 

At one point in February 2021, over the course of five games, Love went a combined 1-17 shooting from 3-point range. Clearly, something was wrong.

This season, though, the dynamic scorer and playmaker has seen the winds of fortune shift in his favor.

Almost overnight, the guard's shooting splits have shot up to where experts thought they'd be all along. Love is averaging 4.8 more points per game than last season, is shooting 15.3 percent better from outside of the arc and has already surpassed his rebounding total from last year.

"This difference between (Love's) freshman and sophomore years is a complete 180," head coach Hubert Davis said. "He's a guy that, on our team, because of his athleticism and giftedness this season, he can create a shot for himself and for his teammates at any given time."

It's just that simple — to fix his game, the star guard had to stop thinking solely about scoring and start thinking about his teammates.

Love's always been known as a both a great scorer and passer, but with three different big men clogging the lane last year in Armando Bacot, Walker Kessler and Day'Ron Sharpe, it became difficult to put up points in the paint.

This year, though, with Bacot in peak form, Love's only had to work with one towering scorer. As a result, his decision-making has become much clearer.

“Last year, we had three other bigs, so he was getting a different feel for all the different bigs,” Bacot said. “This year with me being the sole big, he has a feel for where I like the ball and he knows exactly where to find me.”

Love has also gelled with his partner in the backcourt, sophomore guard RJ Davis, with whom he has felt more comfortable sharing the court and making plays for. With Love's focus going beyond his scoring totals, he's been able to help Bacot to 10 straight double-doubles, while simultaneously seeing Davis's scoring numbers reach career-highs.

One could be forgiven for thinking Love had a subpar performance in the team's recent 90-83 win over Louisville. After all, he only shot 16.7 percent from the field and, in his first-ever college overtime, made just one shot. 

And yet, during that same game, Love went 9-10 from the free-throw line and matched his season-high of six assists. In fact, in nine of the 22 games the Tar Heels have played so far, Love has posted five or more assists — all of which resulted in wins.

“It's not just about me making shots,” Love said after the game. “So if my shot’s not falling, I’m doing other things on the floor — playing defense and getting my teammates shots.”

With his play diversifying, not only has Love become a bigger asset to his team, but his draft stock and hype around the country have taken a turn for the better.

“He might be the best ball guard, along with (Wake Forest’s) Alondes Williams, probably in the ACC,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. “When he's good, he's really hard to contain. He makes NBA contested shots — more tough shots than anyone in the league.”

But on Saturday, Love and the Tar Heels will have their toughest test of the season so far, and against their bitter rivals in the No. 9 Duke Blue Devils no less. There's no shortage of pressures — a full Dean Smith Center rivalry match for the first time in two years and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski's last game in Chapel Hill.

It's also a game people expect him to dominate in — Love scored a combined 43 points in two games over the Blue Devils last season to lead the Tar Heels to a season sweep.

But Love's never played the Blue Devils in front of a full house of Tar Heel faithful, and even needed some advice from teammates like Bacot and senior forward Leaky Black on what to expect.

“They said it's going to be crazy,” Love said. “You can't really hear anything, you might not hear Coach Davis, you might not hear us calling for a screen or anything.”

In a season where there's been lots of noise surrounding Love's play, the guard has shown an uncanny ability to tune it out and make the plays his team needs, whether that's scoring himself or creating opportunities for his teammates.

To defend his home court and determine the top dog in the ACC, Love will need to make sure that his ability to silence the commotion is sharp as ever.

When asked to use a word to describe his anticipation for the upcoming game, Love couldn't hold himself to just one.

“Locked in.”

@KaitlynSchmid1

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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