Caleb Love leads Arizona into Sweet 16 with team-first approach: ‘He’s been an amazing teammate’

Arizona’s Caleb Love arrived from North Carolina with a reputation. He was selfish, a bad teammate, took too many bad shots.

As is the case with most social media hyperbole, perception didn’t meet reality once Love put on a Wildcats uniform.

“Everybody had these preconceived notions about the kid coming out of Carolina, and it couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Arizona associate head coach Jack Murphy said. “He’s been an amazing teammate, an amazing competitor and a great learner.”

The Wildcats are in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years under coach Tommy Lloyd, facing Clemson in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Love has been a huge part of Arizona’s success.

The 6-foot-4 guard leads the Wildcats with 18.1 points per game while averaging 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists. He was named the Pac-12 player of the year and a third-team Associated Press All-American after leading Arizona to the Pac-12 regular-season title.

Love also has given Arizona something that was missing the past couple of years: someone who doesn’t wilt when the game is on the line.

A year ago, Arizona found itself in a tight game against Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With no go-to player, the Wildcats couldn’t come up with the big plays down the stretch and were bounced from the bracket as a No. 2 seed, quickly extinguishing what was expected to be a deep March run.

That won’t be the case in crunch time this year.

“You want to play in these moments, these big-time games,” Love said. “I dreamed of this as a kid, watching March Madness, wanted to be on the stage and I think I rise to the occasion.”

Love has a proven track record in that department.

At North Carolina, he scored 30 points against UCLA in the 2022 Sweet 16 and followed that by scoring 22 of his 28 in the second half against rival Duke in the Final Four, sending the Tar Heels into the championship game. Love proved his worth quickly at Arizona, making all the key plays down the stretch in a win at Duke during his second game in a Wildcats uniform.

“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Murphy said. “At the end of the day, he’s a winner. He doesn’t shy away from it”

Love’s reputation for taking and making difficult shots took a hit last season as North Carolina became the first preseason No. 1 to miss the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels had plenty of issues, but Love took the brunt of the criticism, earning a reputation — deserved or not — for being selfish.

Love’s decision to transfer to Arizona raised a few eyebrows, even among his future teammates.

“I only knew what social media was feeding me — Caleb Love is a bad teammate, a distraction,” Arizona point guard Kylan Boswell said after Arizona’s win over Dayton in the NCAA Tournament’s second round last weekend. “I was openminded about him coming in, but I really didn’t know how this was gonna go. But the first day I met him, I was like, oh, this is going to be fine.”

It sure has been.

When Love first arrived in the desert, he told Lloyd he wanted to be coached hard to become a better all-around player. Love has accepted Lloyd’s team-above-all approach, playing the role of go-to player while staying within the framework of Arizona’s offense.

Lloyd occasionally has to give the pump-the-brakes sign when Love takes heat-check shots that don’t go in, but it has mostly been a perfect match.

Love is shooting a career-best 42% from the floor and his scoring average is nearly two points per game more than his previous best. His efficiency and assists also are career bests and his defense may be the best it’s been.

“At this point, all I care about is winning,” Love said. “I don’t care if I’m on the court, on the bench, or in the stands. I play Arizona basketball and Arizona basketball ain’t about me.”

In just one season, Love has changed the narrative about his career and made Arizona basketball better for it.

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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