UNC basketball guard Caleb Love is finding his shooting touch by ‘trusting his work’
During his recent shooting slump, if anyone asked North Carolina guard Caleb Love about it, he’d invariably revert at some point in the conversation to a variation of his favorite phrase: “I trust my work.”
It’s a nod to the untold hours and countless jumpers he’s shot before and after practice, mostly unseen before 20,000 empty seats in the Dean E. Smith Center. It’s why his 15-point, five-assist performance in Tuesday’s win over Syracuse may have signaled the turning point Love needed as the Tar Heels head into the final full month of the regular season.
Love played noticeably different offensively against the Orange. He logged a season-low seven shot attempts, yet he was decisive with how he attacked its zone.
“I just tried to make the right play each time down the floor, not forcing anything and just let the game come to me,” Love said. “I knew some of the shots that I was taking were great shots. And so I was just doing that and also trying to make the right plays and get my teammates involved within the right spots.”
Turning the corner
When Pitt plays at UNC on Wednesday, Love will have a chance to test whether his performance against Syracuse was a one-time positive bump, or if he’s made progress toward snapping a funk that, ironically enough, began against the Panthers. In the Heels’ game at Pitt on Dec. 30, he scored a season-low seven points — and needed a banked 3-pointer with two seconds remaining to reach that total.
Love said he’s been having daily morning workouts, shooting with assistant coach Jeff Lebo, who still holds Carolina’s record for the highest 3-point percentage (42.8) of those who made at least 200 in their career. (Head coach Hubert Davis has the record for those who made at least 100 at 43.5 percent.)
Davis noted Love has been shooting better in practice, as well.
But putting together a string of efficient games shooting may come down to another recurring conversation. Whether it was former coach Roy Williams during his freshman season, or the past two under Davis, coaches have consistently reminded Love to be mindful of his shot selection.
“That’s something that we’ve talked about the last three years and that we’ve talked about a lot is about shot selection,” Davis said.
Love’s usage rate is about the same as last season — at 25.4 this season after being 25.3 last year. But his percentage of shots taken when he’s on the floor increased from 26.2 last season to 28.4, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Love, who is third on the team in scoring with a 16.2 average, has attempted the most shots by 50 and the most 3s by more than 40. Davis doesn’t mind that Love is a volume shooter, he just wants Love to take the right shots.
“I just always believe if you take good shots, you give yourself such a great chance of your percentages being really good — and taking the right shots,” Davis said. “And I think Caleb has gotten definitely better at that. But that’s something that he continues to work on and continues to try to improve.”
Love’s shooting percentages have decreased from a season ago, but they took a particularly steep dive in the seven games prior to the Heels’ win over Syracuse. Love shot just 32.5 percent from the floor and made just 23.4 percent of his 3-point attempts during that stretch.
He set a school record for consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer made earlier in the season, but watched that streak come to an end at 45 games after he went 0 for 7 from behind the arc at Louisville.
Love has been through this before.
He endured an eight-game shooting slump last year around this time during which he shot just 27.1 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from 3-point range.
And how did that turn out for Love? He helped shoot Carolina into the national title game, making nearly every big shot the team needed, from his 27-point second half against UCLA, to the 3-pointer that ended former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career.
The Heels remember. It’s why they didn’t overreact to Love’s shooting slump. And it’s why they believe the Syracuse game may be the turning point.
“I don’t think his confidence has ever wavered,” UNC forward Armando Bacot said. “But I thought it was kind of a different feel to how he got into his shots (against the Orange.) It just seemed like more in rhythm and he had some conviction behind it, and I thought that really worked out.”
Love shot 4 for 7 from the floor and 3 for 5 from 3-point range against Syracuse. It marked the first time since going 6 for 10 against The Citadel that Love shot at least 50 percent from the field. It was also the highest-rated game in offensive efficiency he’s had in 10 ACC games, according to Ken Pomeroy.
“I know how that is when you’re taking shots and it just doesn’t seem to fall,” UNC forward Pete Nance said. “It was great to see him hit a couple and we have a lot of confidence in him, and we know what he’s capable of.”