TUCSON, Ariz. – Caleb Love has come to the right place. Or so the universe seemed to insist on this Thursday afternoon. Few college basketball teams opt for dead shots to set the mood, but here at the University of Arizona, the senior transfer blasted “no mountain high enough” over a thin side speaker before arriving for preseason practice. As he stepped out onto the floor of the McCale Center—like stepping out of a dark tunnel and into the light—the choir ran into another gem.
Can’t you see I’m lonely? save me
It’s a lot. Like an air horn draft. And not the last. One of the players in the nation wore a long-sleeve jersey under his workout jersey. Midway through practice, Love should flip his jersey from blue to white. A quick change reveals the four words on his base cover for the day: Be Better. Be unique.
Love led North Carolina to the national championship game in 2022, and was largely responsible for Mike Krzyzewski’s career Final Four finish. He crashed out the following season, one of the fallouts for the drama and effectiveness of pulling the Tar Heels from the preseason No. 1 seed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. Fall to Michigan. He eventually found refuge in Arizona. His last chance to be what he says he can be.
“I feel like I had to go through that to get to where I am now and where I am now,” says Love, sitting in a quiet movie room, mentally strong and to the point. Able to take a punch and punch back. Or get punched, fall and get back up.
The message, if nothing else, is consistent.
Now we wait to see who will come out of the desert.
The family celebrated birthday number 22 with vegan lasagnas and spaghetti and meatballs from the fourth-generation owners of Caruso’s Restaurant and endless garlic bread. A simple call. The lovers didn’t have to stay long in Tucson to find out where their son could find good Italian food. “My mom definitely knows what she’s doing,” Love said. With the daily 7 o’clock workout approaching, the festivities weren’t overly festive and the conversations were light.
Far from what they expected to be on this day, and they were glad to be there. “I think he was beaten,” said Dennis Love, Caleb’s father. “He’ll never admit it, but he’s my son, and I know him. It touched him, you know? He is strong willed. It has been determined. But he faced it. And it passed.
College kids are in the spotlight in college athletics, but they are flawed and vulnerable. Sometimes Caleb Love walked into head coach Hubert Davis’ office for a one-on-one meeting in March after three years, 101 games, 1,476 points and one Final Four run at North Carolina, expecting honesty and mutual disappointment, but he was met with something serious.
What do you see my future as? It takes love.
I don’t know, Davis replied.
Love later calls his father, overcome with emotion. After reaching the end, he should know where to go.
“It hurts,” Love says now. “It hurts. You put your faith in this coach. You put your faith in Coach (Roy) Williams after he leaves. I stayed. I could have left and gone somewhere else. But I trust him.”
“We had partial success, and obviously we didn’t win it the first year. And then in the second year, things fell apart. ‘I am the same player, coach. I’m the player that was in that national championship game.’ And he certainly came home to speak.
Love’s player efficiency rating, effective field goal percentage and assist rating all dropped from his sophomore year to his junior year. But over the past five months, he’s been a better shooter from 2-point range and his turnovers have gone down despite his increased usage. Love understood why people couldn’t get past his dismal 3-point percentage, but he thought those shots were what the program wanted him to take.
It’s work reconciling doing what you believe you should be doing and being passionate about it. He did the math.
“I’ve had to get better at not being hard on myself,” Love said.
But Michigan’s intervention didn’t help. Love indicated that his previous relationship with Wolverines coach Juan Howard through US Basketball could provide a smooth transfer landing. As Dennis Love put it, “almost a hug,” Love took an apartment and shipped some belongings to Ann Arbor. Then the ubiquitous and mysterious Trilly Donovan tweeted that it was news to Caleb Love that Caleb Love would not be in a Michigan uniform in 2023-24. Then rumors: Michigan doesn’t receive enough love credits from North Carolina.
Dennis Love called Howard and asked for clarification. According to Dennis Love, Howard responded that the family should do what’s best for their son. An unanswered but loud and clear confirmation that Caleb can’t – can’t – register love.
Another ending, this time it should have been a beginning. “(Howard) tried so hard,” Love says. “It’s out of hand. Like, man, I can’t catch a break.”
Across the country, meanwhile, Tommy Lloyd looks both back and forward. He figured he would cut Arizona’s roster so thin in the secondary, where depth issues contributed to a season that ended with a first-round nosedive over Princeton. He thinks his upcoming 2023-24 squad, as constructed, has room for more yardage goals.
He also recalled spring conversations with a couple of transfer prospects that went well — Arizona assistant coach Steve Robinson had recruited and coached that prospect before, for one thing — and also went nowhere. An obvious prospect was heading to Michigan.
Caleb was not love. “The timing was perfect,” Lloyd said. Talks have resumed. A visit was made. Lloyd explained how Love helps, but cautioned that the Wildcats coach doesn’t need Love to prove he’s the best player in the gym every day. He explained how he realized that love was among his problems. He was painfully self-aware and told Lloyd that he needed help with bullet selection. With playing. Continuous protection. It stopped the Arizona coach in his tracks.
Wait, so you’re telling me you want to take better shots, pass the ball more, and put more effort into defense? Lloyd remembers speaking to Love. Yes, I can blame you for that.
“The things he wanted in this last trip were things we could give him,” Lloyd said. “I don’t think it’s crazy to think you’re going to come here and play efficient basketball. It’s kind of how the system is built.
The challenge is how the system holds up and how love willingly buys into it.
Arizona finished 10th and fourth in KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency in Lloyd’s first two seasons. He assisted on 64.7 percent of his baskets last year, which was fifth nationally. There is freedom, and there is speed, and there is patience with offensive mistakes. Lloyd wants to attack the rim and put bad pressure on the opponent. But Arizona’s head coach is pointing to the Xs plastered on the floor of McCale Center at the start of preseason practice and reminding him that someone always has to be in one of those spots, no matter how much the offense is flowing. There is definitely a fairer way to play for free.
Cut to a teammate driving towards you. Jump-stop and look for the open man. Runs in transition. “That’s the magic of working hard when you think you don’t have the ball,” Lloyd told the team. There are easy ways to make a point or create a point. Find them. “I didn’t even know how to cut when I got here, honestly,” Love said. “It’s not like we didn’t do it in North Carolina. We just didn’t do it often. We do it here every day.
All parts of the reprogram.
Some of them mean to correct the record on his name. Caleb Love knew what Caleb Love’s new teammates thought. Ball pig. Bad teammate. Mercurial. “If I don’t smile, they say I’m angry,” Love said. If I smile, they say I’m on a boat. Even sophomore Keelan Boswell, now his love’s morning workout partner, admits it’s impossible to shake off preconceptions. Then Love introduces himself to everyone, learns to renew the names of managers for him. He then starts cracking jokes, even taking Alice to Boswell and redshirt freshman Philip Borovicani at the pool table. Then he played and worked and tried to do the right thing. “He’s a great guy and works his ass off every day,” Boswell said. “You can tell in practice every day, every day he’s training, he’s definitely trying to change the narrative about him.”
Some are more concrete, mechanical maintenance, as well. When Arizona’s staff studied Love’s shot during a three-game exhibition trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the coaches noticed that Love’s right wrist wasn’t bent in the catch and the ball started a little off-center. He started his movement. They asked him if he would be open to some adjustments to speed up the release and be more consistent in the direction of the shot. “A lot of times, kids get over it,” Lloyd says. But he didn’t,” he said.
Mostly, though, it’s an ongoing philosophical discussion. Last year, 61.3 percent of Love’s jump shots were blocked by Synergy Sports Data, and he hit 27.6 percent of those attempts. He shot 164 of his 253 jumpers off the dribble. “It’s a tough life,” Lloyd said. Arizona coaches believe Love can be a 50 percent shooter overall and a 40 percent shooter from 3-point range … if he hunts down catch-and-shoot looks and limits acrobatic, difficulty-level attempts.
“I don’t know if it’s really out of the system,” Robinson said. “Sometimes in basketball, you see it and you react and you do it. We’re trying to say, ‘OK, you can slow it down, maybe where you don’t have to play the hardest game’.
Love is very happy when he talks about the results. “I haven’t had to force a shot the whole time I’ve been here,” he said. “And because of the system, I shot more open shots than I did my entire career at North Carolina.” 3 He remembers the ill-advised back lift two days ago and how it just didn’t feel right. But this is still a daily process. Constant reminders. must be. Love’s iPhone lock screen has only one word: Discipline. But it’s played out for a while and Arizona will have to be patient to overcome any setback.
With about 30 minutes left in that Thursday practice in late September, Love gets a little stressed. His shot is feast-or-famine and frustration is seething. (After Love misses a corner 3-on-five in zero drills, Arizona center Omar Ballo steps aside and lands a big right arm on Love’s shoulder for encouragement. He tries to drop a one-handed pass to the opposite corner for an open look. It’s easily intercepted by Boswell, who reads it all the way.
Moments later, they hug and tell Love what Arizona’s head coach needs to hear.
“I want you to make that mistake,” Lloyd tells Love.
In this system, love should not be difficult to pass with one hand on the left hand. Skip a stop. Look back. Someone will be open.
“We’re going to make people look like fools, and people are going to say, ‘Holy sh– he’s got a good feel for the game,'” Lloyd continued.
After 20 minutes, Love again fires down the left flank, stops on both feet, looks over his right shoulder, and fires a two-handed shot past an unsuspecting teammate at the top of the key.
The shot missed. doesn’t matter. It’s not wrong.
“The things we do every day, you either interact with it or you don’t,” says Love. “I never have to come off (a screen) and then play one-on-five. You don’t have to think like that.
This is it, absolutely. The stress in this test. Breaking the line of failure between good ideas and bad habits.
Arizona and Caleb love to win together, or so you’ve been told for five months.
Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye welcome people to the red-and-blue display, the opening night of Arizona’s Midnight Madness show. The bass beat is meant to be background noise, but instead it’s a competition. Past program greats, here to serve as emcees, are a constant presence throughout the McKale Center. They seem to anticipate how their enthusiastic audience will respond.
This will not last long. Minutes later, the men’s basketball team lined up for the entrance. It is clear to everyone what to do, no sign is needed. The crowd erupted as Caleb Love’s shot went over the top scoreboard. It’s the second loudest shout for the player — Boswell beats his workout partner there — and the arena announcer blurts out whatever he’s saying after saying, “At guard, the 6-4 senior…” The moment people have been waiting for.
When Love clears a full rack on a 3-point contest, there’s another crack of appreciation. (He lost to Borovicanin in the final round.) On the first possession of the intersquad scrimmage, Love dribbles to a 3-pointer and sinks it.
Add another volume in the building.
Then after several attempts, the Wildcats’ big-hitting guard hit his second shot at the seven-and-a-half minute mark.
He didn’t play poorly. He didn’t turn the ball over once in the first half. He cuts back but misses the finish. He leads a break, jumps in the lane and sprays the ball into the corner for a wide open look. He thinks about a pull transition 3 but instead feeds Keshad Johnson for an easy layup.
Love, finally, seems like a real-time learner. Like he tries really hard to speak a new language and gets his point across… mostly. In three weeks, he would score 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting and dish out seven rebounds in an exhibition game at Arizona. Tonight, of course, that’s still unseen, a good future. The McCallie Center will be empty after 10pm and everyone will be wondering what else there is.
The next night, Love leads his teammates during the football team’s scrimmage against Washington. A brief recognition of the men’s hoops team broadcast on the stadium video board. Love, wearing an Arizona ball cap and slightly to the left, wrapped an arm around freshman guard Conrad Martinez from Spain. He looks comfortable. He smiles the whole time.
No surprise there. Speaking of Tucson’s notorious heat, he said a few days ago: It can definitely be bad. But he has no reason to be mad.
“You’re going out into the sun every day,” says Caleb Love.
(Credit: John Bradford/The Athletic; Photos: Mike Christy, Rebecca Sasnett/University of Arizona)