By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — You don’t have to tell point guard Caleb Love that his freshman season could have gone a lot better. He’ll also tell you that much of that surprised him.
The consistent jump shot that he counted on in high school abandoned him for much of the season and the adjustment to major college basketball led him to poor decisions on many nights. That’s not the observation of a pundit. That’s his assessment.
“It was a humbling experience,” Love said Tuesday at ACC Tipoff. “I feel like I learned that I can get through anything because, even with the struggles that I’ve made, I still made some improvements and I still had a good season. But I’ve just been working out for so much the offseason to have a great season.”
For Carolina to be a national contender, Love will need the second-year bump that many players experience. He needs to be a dependable floor leader, but he says that it starts with shooting.
“Just making shots, making shots at an efficient level,” Love said. “I feel like I didn’t do that last year, obviously. I feel like now that I know who I am, I’ve got the mental state on point. I feel like I’ve just got to make shots and that’s that.”
Love shot 31.6% from the floor and only 25.6% from 3-point range last season but is confident that all of his work in the offseason will shoot those percentages up.
“That’s what I’ve just been working on all summer, just my shot and then my decision-making is definitely going to be better. Just being that point [guard] that can make shots and get my teammates involved,” said Love, who averaged 10.5 points and 3.6 assists per game.
The turnovers from Love and guard RJ Davis last year were a big reason for many losses. Love says that a regular offseason gave him a chance to improve on that after he didn’t get the same chances before his freshman season because of the pandemic.
He’s watched videos to learn what went wrong during those games.
“I just feel like careless turnovers, just dribbling,” Love said. “I feel like just certain passes I made, I just feel like that was a decision that I shouldn’t have made. That year under my belt and watching film and being more wise. I feel like that was a big jump that I made over the offseason.”
Junior center Armando Bacot said that he’s seen a different mentality from Love than he saw last season.
“Definitely, man,” Bacot said. “Just his confidence. He’s got a new and a different swagger about him. He’s going out there to kick butt all year. He’s been really shooting the ball well. The way he’s been playing is a lot smarter.”
Not only does Love say he’ll be a better player on the court, he likes the greater spacing in Carolina’s offense under Coach Hubert Davis’ system.
“The spacing will be a lot better,” Love said. “I’m going to get a drive and the lane will be open so I can get downhill easy and create plays.”
Bacot agreed that the extra spacing is going to help Love’s game.
“The spacing has been great for him because he likes to drive,” Bacot said. “So, just me being in the short corner versus being on the block allows even more spacing for so he can get the easy dump offs or finish and then we’ve got all these shooters around too. So, it’s not so much people being able to help and stunt at him and making him make extra moves. He’s just having a lot of straight-line drives.”
There were certainly big highlights during his freshman season, including a 25-point, seven-assist game in a win at Duke. But there were many frustrating nights during that 18–11 season that ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Wisconsin.
“When we lost, there were a lot of sad faces, a lot of mad, mad people,” Love said. “But I feel like from then to now, that we made a big jump into just who we are. We found out who we are. We found our niche. Having Coach Davis there rocking with us? I feel like we just go so hard for him. I would run through a brick wall for him.”
Love is part of the reason that Davis has been able to make the Tar Heels a versatile team on defense.
“One of the things this year defensively that I love is the versatility amongst everybody on our roster,” Davis said. “Caleb can guard bigs down low in the post and Armando can guard any perimeter player out on the perimeter. We can do that with Dawson Garcia and Justin McKoy and Brady Manek. That versatility on the defensive end is going to be really huge for us.”
Davis’ message about defensive intensity has been received.
“Coach Davis has been on us constantly, every practice about our defense,” Love said. “Everybody, honestly, the whole coaching staff — no middle drives, just constantly close out hard. I mean, he preaches it every day at practice. He’s instilling it into us now so that when we get into a game it’s second nature.”
With a much-improved Love running the show from the point, winning may become second nature as well.
Photo courtesy of the ACC