The game of basketball is as guard driven as it’s ever been, and a program that reflects that is North Carolina. Ever since the days of Phil Ford running the famed 4 Corners offense, the Tar Heels have been blessed with exceptional point guard play for the majority of the last 40 years. If you look at the 5 NCAA championship teams since 1982, every single one of them was led by an experienced, high level floor leader. Like a quarterback in football, the point guard is an extension of the coach on the court, and it’s nearly impossible to win at a high level without one of them.
When Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill in 2003, he inherited a talented, but unproven guard in Raymond Felton. By the time Felton left for the NBA, he won the Bob Cousy award, and helped Carolina cut down the nets in 2005. After Felton, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Paige and Joel Berry continued the great tradition of point guard play. Lawson and Berry helped the Tar Heels to two more national titles, while Paige took the program to the national title game in 2016.
Upon the graduation of Berry, Carolina brought in a highly touted local prospect in Coby White to take over. When he initially committed, no one thought he would be gone after just one season, but after a summer trip to the Bahamas, it was clear that White was different. After leading the Tar Heels to a regular season ACC title, and Sweet 16 berth, White bolted for the NBA. After Anthony, Roy Williams turned to Cole Anthony for his third point guard in as many years. Despite battling a knee injury that forced him to miss 11 games, and a historically bad season, Anthony left for the NBA, joining White as back to back point guards to be drafted in the first round.
All of that, brings us to Caleb Love, the latest highly sought after recruit, that decided to play point guard for the Tar Heels. Love, a former 5 star talent from Missouri, became the fourth point guard in the last four years, and the third straight freshman to start. Coming in with the accolades Love accumulated in high school, and seeing the success rookie point guards had in back to back seasons, expectations were high in Chapel Hill for Love.
In a normal offseason, Love would’ve had plenty of time with his coaches, teammates and former players to adjust to playing at the college level. COVID-19 wiped all of that away from Love, therefore delaying his development and progression. Even with the NCAA delaying the season by two weeks, Love was starting behind the 8 ball when the season got under way.
A lot like Coby White, Love was thought of to be a natural fit for the style of play we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Tar Heels play under Roy Williams. In high school, Love excelled in the open floor, and was able to finish at the rim, around contact. In the 7 non-conference games Carolina played to open their season, we didn’t see much of that. After debuting against the College of Charleston with 17 points, Love struggled in the relocated Maui Invitational scoring less than 6 points twice. In the championship game, Love scored just 5 points, on a dismal 2-13 shooting. What was once thought of to be a seamless transition from one point guard to another, was anything but.
Entering ACC play, the Tar Heels owned a 5-2 record, but it was in spite of consistent backcourt play. Love was averaging 11.1 points per game after those 7 games, but was shooting an abysmal 30% from the field. His struggles drew criticism from the media, the fan base, and a coaching staff that needed more than what he was giving them at the time. With 4 of their 6 conference games going to be on the road, Love was going to need to grow up sooner than later.
The losses at NC State and Georgia Tech to begin conference play weren’t fun to watch, but the almost week in between games, gifted Carolina with much needed practice time on the court. Over the years, the Tar Heels have been a program that gradually gets better as the season moves along, typically playing their best basketball in March, when it matters most. In the first week of January, that progression not only wasn’t noticeable, folks were starting to wonder if it was ever going to happen.
Following the 0-2 start, Carolina ripped off three consecutive victories, but not because of improved play from Love. In the wins over Notre Dame, Miami, Syracuse, the rookie scored a combined 15 points, as his backcourt name R.J. Davis was shining off the bench. The struggles in the wins led to postgame workouts for the struggling freshman. After the Miami win, Roy Williams made a statement saying that Love was going to be a good player, he just hoped it would be before he was dead.
All those late night workout sessions, and the constant coaching and belief from Roy Williams, finally starting paying off for Love. In the three games that followed, he scored double figures in all, including a career best 20 points in a win over Wake Forest. He was starting to assert himself more driving the basket, instead of settling for long contested shots. His turnovers started going down, while his assists started going up. He looked like a legitimate point guard. He looked like he belonged on the court, in that uniform, in this conference.
His season numbers aren’t pretty, as he’s only averaging 10.4 points, on 31% shooting from the field. But make no mistake, Love is improving and Carolina wouldn’t have won 6 of their last 7 without his play in certain games, and moments. One thing is for certain as Carolina is starting to hit their stride, Caleb is going to be a big part of this team’s success moving forward, and that’s something all Tar Heels should love.