TUCSON, Ariz. — Caleb Love has come to the right place. Or so the universe seemingly insists on this Thursday afternoon. Few college basketball teams choose Motown hits to set the mood, but here at the University of Arizona, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” blasts through a skinny sideline speaker before the senior transfer’s arrival for a preseason practice. As he steps onto the McKale Center floor – like actually out of a dark tunnel and into the light – the chorus to another gem kicks in.
Can’t you see that I’m lonely? Rescue me.
It’s a lot. Subtle like an air horn. And it’s not the last of it. One of the most polarizing players in the nation wears a long-sleeved shirt under his workout jersey. Halfway through practice, Love has to flip the jersey from blue to white. The quick change reveals the four words on his base layer for the day: BE BETTER. BE DIFFERENT.
Love drove North Carolina to the national championship game in 2022, most notably as the core culprit in ending Mike Krzyzewski’s career in the Final Four. He crash-landed the following season, one of the fall guys for the drama and inefficacies that dragged the Tar Heels from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. He crawled out of that crater only for a transfer to Michigan to fall through. Finally, he found refuge at Arizona. A last chance to be what he insists he can be.
“I feel like I had to go through that to get to where I am right now, and into the space I’m in right now,” Love says, sitting in a noiseless film room, “as far as mentally being strong and being able to take a punch and punch back. Or take a punch, fall down and get back up.”
The messaging, if nothing else, is consistent.
Now we wait to see who walks out of the desert.
The family honored birthday No. 22 with vegan lasagnas and spaghetti and meatballs at Caruso’s, a restaurant with fourth-generation owners and endless garlic bread. An easy call. The Loves didn’t need to be in Tucson long to know where to get their son good Italian food. “My mom definitely knew what she was doing,” Love says. With his daily 7 a.m. workout looming, the festivities weren’t overly festive and the conversations were light.
They were far, far away from where they expected to be on this day, and simply happy to be there. “I think he was beat down,” says Dennis Love, Caleb’s father. “He’ll never admit it, but he’s my kid, and I know him. It affected him, you know? He’s strong-willed. Determined. But he dealt with it. And he came through.”
College kids are in college athletics by choice, but they’re also flawed and exposed nevertheless. Sometimes they’re Caleb Love walking into head coach Hubert Davis’ office for an individual meeting in March, after three years and 101 games and 1,476 points and one Final Four run at North Carolina, expecting honesty and shared disappointment but encountering something grimmer.
What do you see my future as? Love asks.
I don’t know, Davis replies.
Love later calls his dad, emotionally staggered. He has to figure out where to go after reaching the end.
“It hurt,” Love says now. “It hurt me. Because you put your trust into this coach. After Coach (Roy) Williams leaving, you put your trust in him. I stayed. I could have left and went somewhere else. But I put my trust in him.
“We had some semi-success, and obviously we didn’t win it the first year. And then the second year, things went to shambles. It was like, ‘I’m the same player, Coach. I’m the same player that was on that national championship run.’ And for him to say that, it definitely hit home.”
Love’s player efficiency rating, effective field goal percentage and assist rate all dropped from his sophomore to junior year. But over the previous five months, he’d also been a better shooter from 2-point range and his turnover rate dropped despite his usage increasing. Love understood why people couldn’t get past the woeful 3-point percentage and ponderous shot selection, but he thought those shots were ones the program wanted him to take.
It’s a chore to reconcile doing what you believed you had to do, and getting panned for it. It also led to a reckoning.
“I needed to get better,” Love says, “at not making it hard on myself.”
The Michigan interlude, however, didn’t help. Love’s previous relationship with Wolverines coach Juwan Howard via USA Basketball suggested he could provide a soft transfer landing. “Almost a hug,” as Dennis Love puts it. Love picked out an apartment and shipped some belongings to Ann Arbor. Then the ubiquitous and mysterious Trilly Donovan tweeted that Caleb Love wouldn’t be in a Michigan uniform in 2023-24, which was news to Caleb Love. Then rumors: Michigan wouldn’t accept enough of Love’s credits from North Carolina.
Dennis Love called Howard and asked for clarity. According to Dennis Love, Howard responded that the family had to do what’s best for their son. A non-answer, but a loud-and-clear confirmation that Caleb Love wouldn’t – couldn’t – enroll.
Another end, this time where a beginning was supposed to be. “(Howard) tried his hardest,” Love says. “He said it was out of his hands. It was just like, man, I can’t catch a break.”
Across the country, meanwhile, Tommy Lloyd looked both backward and forward. He guessed he’d cut his second Arizona roster too thin, with depth issues contributing to a season that ended in a first-round nosedive against Princeton. He thought his upcoming 2023-24 team, as constructed, had a gap where more backcourt scoring could be.
He remembered, too, a couple springtime conversations with a coveted transfer prospect that went well – Arizona assistant coach Steve Robinson had recruited and coached that prospect before, for one thing – and also went nowhere. Said prospect, clearly, was headed to Michigan.
Until Caleb Love wasn’t. “The timing was perfect,” Lloyd says. Conversations restarted. A visit took place. Lloyd explained how Love could help, but the Wildcats coach also cautioned that he didn’t need Love to try to prove he was the best player in the gym, every day. Love explained how he understood that was among his problems. He told Lloyd, in brutally self-aware terms, that he needed help with shot selection. With playmaking. With consistent defense. It stopped Arizona’s coach in his tracks.
Wait, so you’re telling me you want to take better shots, pass the ball more and play with more effort on defense? Lloyd recalls telling Love. Yeah, I can hold you accountable for that.
“The things he was looking for in this last go-around were the things we could offer,” Lloyd says. “I don’t think it’s a crazy stretch to think you’re going to come here and play efficient basketball. It’s kind of how the system is built.”
How the system holds up, and how willingly Love submits to it, is the test.
Arizona has finished 10th and fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com, respectively, in Lloyd’s first two seasons. It recorded assists on 64.7 percent of its baskets last year, good for fifth nationally. There is freedom, and there is pace, and there is patience with mistakes of aggression. Lloyd wants to attack the rim and put foul pressure on the opponent. But there’s Arizona’s head coach pointing to the Xs taped on the McKale Center floor early in a preseason practice and reminding his team that someone should almost always be in one of those spots, no matter how the offense is flowing. There is, for sure, a definitive right way to play free.
Cutting when a teammate drives at you. Jump-stopping and looking for the open man. Run-outs in transition. Working hard when you don’t think you’re getting the ball – that’s the magic, Lloyd tells his team. There are easy ways to score or create scores. Find them. “I didn’t even know how to cut when I got here, honestly,” Love says. “Not that we didn’t do it in North Carolina. We just didn’t repetitively do it. We do it every day here.”
All part of the reprogramming.
Some of that meant correcting the record on his reputation. Caleb Love knew what new teammates might think about Caleb Love. Ball hog. Bad teammate. Mercurial. “If I don’t smile, they say I’m mad,” Love says. “If I do smile, they say I’m showboating.” Even sophomore Kylan Boswell, now Love’s morning workout partner, concedes it was impossible to avoid preconceptions. Then Love introduced himself to everyone, learning the names of managers rebounding for him. Then he started cracking jokes even while taking Ls to Boswell and redshirt freshman Filip Borovicanin at the pool table. Then he just played and worked and tried to do the right thing. “He’s a great person and works his ass off every day,” Boswell says. “You can tell every day in practice, every day he’s training, he’s definitely trying to change what the narrative is about him.”
Some of it has been more tangible, mechanical repair, too. As Arizona’s staff studied Love’s shooting and reviewed a three-game exhibition tour to Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the coaches noticed Love’s right wrist wasn’t bent on the catch and the ball started ever-so-slightly too far in the middle when he started his motion. They asked if he’d be open to some tweaks, to hasten the release and create more consistency in shot trajectory. “A lot of times kids are resistant to that,” Lloyd says, “but he hasn’t been.”
Mostly, though, it’s an ongoing philosophical conversation. Last year, 61.3 percent of Love’s jump shots were guarded, per Synergy Sports data, and he shot 27.6 percent on those attempts. He shot 164 of his 253 jumpers off the dribble. “That’s hard living,” Lloyd says. Arizona’s coaches believe Love can be a 50 percent shooter overall and a 40 percent shooter from 3-point range … if he hunts catch-and-shoot looks and limits the acrobatic, degree-of-difficulty attempts.
“I don’t know if it’s really ever going to get out of his system,” Robinson says. “Sometimes in basketball, you see it and you react and you do it. We’re just trying to say, ‘OK, you can slow it down, where maybe you don’t have to make the most difficult play.’”
Love gets a bit over-excited when he talks about the results. “This whole time I’ve been here, I have not had to force one shot,” he says. “And I’ve shot way more open shots than I probably had my whole career in North Carolina, just because of the system.” He recalls hoisting an ill-advised step-back 3 two days earlier and how it just didn’t feel right. But this is still a daily process. Constant reminders. It has to be. Love’s iPhone lock screen even features just one word: DISCIPLINE. But he’s played a certain way for a long time, and Arizona has to be patient enough to outlast any relapses.
With about 30 minutes left in that Thursday practice in late September, Love presses a little. His shot is feast-or-famine and frustration is simmering. (After Love misses one corner 3 in a five-on-zero drill, Arizona center Oumar Ballo walks to his side, slings a massive right arm over Love’s shoulders and offers encouragement.) So at the end of a baseline drive going left, Love tries to fling a one-handed pass to the opposite corner for an open look. It’s intercepted, easily, by Boswell, who read it all the way.
Moments later, in a huddle, Arizona’s head coach tells Love exactly what he has to hear.
“I need you to make that mistake,” Lloyd tells Love.
In this system, he explains, Love doesn’t have to bother with a one-handed, left-handed pass. Jump stop. Look back. Someone will be open.
“We’re going to make people look silly,” Lloyd continues, “and people are going to say, ‘Holy sh–, he’s got a great feel for the game.’”
Twenty minutes later, Love again drives left to the baseline, stops on two feet, looks over his right shoulder and fires a two-handed overhead pass to an unguarded teammate at the top of the key.
The shot misses. Doesn’t matter. It’s not a mistake.
“The things we do every day, you either get with it or you just don’t,” Love says. “I never really have to come off (a screen) and then play one-on-five. You don’t have to think like that.”
This is it, completely. The tension in this test. Good intentions breaking a losing streak against bad habits.
Arizona and Caleb Love win together, or it’s a five-month-long told-you-so.
Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye welcome people to the Red-Blue Showcase, Arizona’s early evening version of a Midnight Madness spectacle. A bass beat meant to be background noise is, instead, competition. The former program greats, here to serve as emcees, are intermittently decipherable throughout the McKale Center. Their presumably enthusiastic audience seems a little unsure how to react.
This does not last long. Minutes later, the men’s basketball team lines up for introductions. Everyone is clear on what to do, no cues required. As soon as Caleb Love’s image hits the overhead scoreboard, the crowd erupts. It’s the second-loudest ovation for a player – Boswell has his workout partner beat there – and it drowns out anything the arena announcer says after “At guard, a 6-4 senior …” Love, dapping up teammates, is in the middle of a moment people have been waiting for.
When Love clears a full rack during a 3-point contest, there’s another crack of adulation. (He ultimately loses to Borovicanin in the final round.) On the first possession of the intrasquad scrimmage, Love dribbles into a rhythm 3-pointer and sinks it.
Another volume spike in the building.
Then, after several tries, the Wildcats’ big-bet transfer guard hits his second shot with seven and a half minutes left.
He’s not played poorly. He doesn’t turn the ball over once in the first half. He back-cuts but misses a finish. He leads a break, jump-stops in the lane and sprays the ball to the corner for a wide-open look. He thinks about a pull-up transition 3 but instead feeds a cutting Keshad Johnson for an easy layup.
Love, in the end, looks like someone learning in real time. Like he’s trying really hard to speak a new language and getting the idea across … mostly. In three weeks, he’ll score 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting while dishing out seven assists against zero turnovers in an exhibition game for Arizona. On this night, of course, that’s still an unseeable, auspicious future. The McKale Center empties after 10 p.m. and everyone wonders what more there is.
The next evening, Love is front and center with his teammates during an early timeout in the football team’s showdown against Washington. A brief recognition of the men’s hoops squad, broadcast on the stadium video board. Love, wearing an Arizona ball cap cocked a little to the left, has an arm slung around Conrad Martinez, a freshman guard from Spain. He looks comfortable. He smiles the whole time.
No surprise there. As he notes a couple days earlier, when he’s talking about Tucson’s notorious heat: It can get bad, for sure. But he has no reason to be mad.
“You’re coming out into the sun every single day,” Caleb Love says.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Mike Christy, Rebecca Sasnett / University of Arizona)