Arizona standout Caleb Love looks to have the last word, prove doubters wrong

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Entering the 2022-23 college basketball season, nobody received more hype than the North Carolina Tar Heels. Following a run to the national championship game, and with the majority of their core back, it was expected that Hubert Davis’ team would be as strong as any in the country.

What ensued was the exact opposite of that, a disappointing non-conference season that included four consecutive losses and a couple of back-breakers in the ACC. In an area of rich passion, the Tar Heels faithful looked for folks to blame. If it wasn’t Davis, the second-year head coach, everybody’s blame went toward one player: Caleb Love. The very man who led UNC with 28 points in a Final Four win over Duke the previous season, was not experiencing the other side of feedback. While he had his struggles, that criticism came off as unfair to put so much on one player. 

When North Carolina was left out of the 2023 NCAA Tournament field, the least-kept secret of a Tar Heels breakup happened, and Love entered the transfer portal. He was supposed to go to Michigan, but academic credit requirements at the university kept him from being eligible to transfer to Ann Arbor. 

The phone rang from Tucson, Arizona, with a coach on the other end who set a new NCAA record for the most wins in the first two years on a job with 61. Tommy Lloyd needed guard help, and Love needed a destination. Many Arizona fans wondered if Love’s rumored and reported issues would be cause for concern for this Wildcats team. But Lloyd asked Love straight up: “Will you be receptive to feedback, and will you be accepting of a role?” 

The senior answered “yes” in confidence to both. 

“It’s been an absolute roller coaster,” Love said when describing the last 12 months of his life. “Obviously, things didn’t work out so well at North Carolina toward the end of my career there. And then, the roller coaster of Michigan not being able to admit me. And then, trying to find the next step, the next best school. Coach Lloyd gave me this opportunity and ever since I took my visit, the talks that we had have been nothing but great.” 

That’s for sure, because “nothing but greatis the perfect way to describe how the No. 1-ranked Arizona Wildcats’ season has been going. All is right in Tucson, and the fan base has dreams of the program’s second national title – and first since 1997 under Lute Olson – coming in Glendale this April. 

As for Love, he’s the leading scorer on an 8-0 team that has wins over Duke, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The St. Louis native is averaging 14.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Wildcats, who enter Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 Purdue as the No. 1 team in the country for a second straight week. Love says that mentally, he’s never been better. And as for any potential issues with his final chapter in Chapel Hill, I asked him about Armando Bacot’s comments to FOX Sports in a Q&A this past summer. 

“Sometimes in life, you’ve got to get divorced,” Bacot said. “You have to do things like that. Caleb is like the wife you divorced, but you still have a kid together.”

“That was a crazy statement, I’m not going to lie,” Love said. “Just the way he worded it – but, I love ‘Mando. I miss him. I’m still rooting for every single one of those dudes, even the ones who transferred into the program. I’m still rooting for them. I’m still tapped into those guys, and I try to stay in touch when I can. I wish the best for North Carolina.” 

That response showcases Love’s maturation, and his level of focus to have the final say in his college career. We talked about that, his family, Jayson and Justin Tatum and much more in our latest FOX College Hoops Q&A. 

You are one of the key pieces on the No. 1 team in the country. What is it like being at Arizona, and how much do you feel as though this has happened for a reason? 

I love being here, man. Ever since I stepped foot on campus, my teammates and my coaches have welcomed me with open arms. They’ve embraced me and I’ve embraced them. I’m grateful to be here, and I’m grateful for the opportunity Coach Lloyd gave me, to play for this magnificent program. I try to get better every single day, taking different steps in my game to help this team win as many games as possible. Us being No. 1, I try not to put too much on it because I’ve been here before. And from my experiences last year, this could go left real quick. That’s college basketball. That’s how it goes. Being No. 1 though, we’re grateful for it and we embrace it. We want to stay hungry and humble at the same time.

Take me through the Michigan process, where you thought you were going to head there and then there were academic credit issues. 

It was tough for me because the communication wasn’t really there with them after I committed, and then it kind of dialed down. So that was different for me because I wasn’t really hearing from the coaches like I was during the recruiting process. So, some antennas went up and my parents and I were concerned. So, we had to ask, ‘what was going on?’ Once we heard the news that they couldn’t admit me, it put me in a tough spot because it was later in the process, and it was tougher to find schools that didn’t already have their full team assembled. I’m just grateful, and everything happens for a reason. Coach Lloyd and Arizona had a spot for me, and I’m just grateful to be here.

Do you think Michigan could have made you aware of this academic situation before you reached out to them about it? 

I feel like they could have, but I do have the utmost respect for Coach Howard. He tried everything he could to help me get in, but admissions over there is tough. You’ve had Terrence Shannon and others in the past years who could not get admitted. I was surprised, though, with how late they told me the news. But everything worked out in the right way.

So, was it Coach Lloyd reaching out to you with the opportunity to play for them? What were those interactions like that sold you on being a Wildcat? 

Yes, it was Coach Lloyd. And when he reached out, I knew about him from his Gonzaga days, how good of a development coach he was. And, the things that he was talking about was how he could help me. And everything lined up as well because I had my assistant coach, Coach [Steve] Robinson at North Carolina. He was my coach my freshman year at UNC, and now he’s at Arizona. I had a great relationship with him, and a comfort level that made me know I could trust somebody there [Arizona] before I even made the move. Once I connected with him, I knew it was meant to be. Those conversations were basically how Coach Lloyd could help me get to where I wanted to get to, and help me improve my game, and then how I could help the team as well. I felt like I was the missing piece.

In what ways have you seen yourself develop in your short time at Arizona? 

For one, my mental space. I’m in the best mental space that I’ve ever been. It’s not that I had pressure before or anything, but I really don’t have any weight on my shoulders now. And then, as for my overall game, I feel like I’ve been rebounding the heck out of the ball (5.0 RPG). I can get better at that, and I’m still learning how to read balls coming off the rim to get offensive rebounds. And then my playmaking within this offense. We have a great offense to where, I know exactly where my teammates are, where they need to be as far as where I can get them the ball, where they like to get the ball, so I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen that I’ve transitioned in. And, I believe my shooting will come.

As a newcomer to this program, you bring a fresh perspective. Coach Lloyd has been the head coach at Arizona for 80 games, though, and he’s won 69 of them. That’s an .862 winning percentage. What is the formula with this program and what do you see that allows you to hit your best level? 

I believe it’s our culture. We work on our culture every single day, as far as our chemistry and camaraderie. We do little things that Coach Lloyd does off the court that we do to keep our chemistry together and on the same page. We work on it every day and talk about it every day. Coach Lloyd always says the standard is the standard. Arizona Basketball is the highest standard, and we hold ourselves to that every day. We don’t want to be complacent or big-headed because we won eight games. So, we’re going to continue to keep our head down and keep pushing every day to get better.

What are some of those little things that Coach Lloyd does with you to work on your culture? 

During the summer, he put us in little groups of teammates that you may not hang out with all the time. He put two or three teammates together and you have to shoot with them, work out and get something to eat with them. Another thing: Everybody has a former player that they’re assigned to who is a mentor to you. I’m assigned to Andre Iguodala. That’s a mentor that I can call and talk to at any time. It’s definitely a different thing over here.

How much have you talked with Andre? 

I’ve talked with him a lot. He’s the OG. He’s been through certain things that I’ve been through, and he wants me to be that vocal leader. I try to take things from him because he was one of the greatest leaders in basketball history, especially during his time with the Warriors. So, I just try to pick his brain here and there when I can.

Any piece of advice that Andre has given you that’s really hit home? 

He’s given me a lot. He’s told me about picking my spots, knowing when to attack and when to create. He wants me to control my emotions and energy, because you know how the game goes. You may get a little too hyped or let the crowd get you out of our game, or things like that. He always tells me to be poised and be like a pro, to approach the game like a pro because that’s where I want to get to. When you hold yourself to that higher standard to be a professional in what you do, I feel like that goes a long way.

In that win over Duke on Nov. 10, you had a play where you find Keshad Johnson for a clutch bucket in crunch time. And as a result, you walk out of Cameron Indoor Stadium for the last time as a winner. What did that night and moment represent for you? 

It meant a lot. Obviously, everybody knows the rivalry I had with them while I was at North Carolina for three years. I feel like it’s still there even though I’m in a different jersey. I carry that rivalry with them wherever I go, so going in there and getting that win was very important not only for me, but for Arizona. Us winning that game put us in a great position to where we are now. I’d say it was an important win.

An 8-0 start to the season for this team. How has that happened? 

Our toughness. We’re the toughest team in the country. The way we play, how hard we play on the defensive end, we work on that every day and hold ourselves to that high standard of defending. We want to contest everything and get after people. On offense, coach always says ‘let it rip.’ What that means is playing with swag and making effort plays, diving on the floor and getting loose balls. When you shoot, shoot it with confidence. Let it go. Let it fly and know it’s going in.

When I say Kylan Boswell, your backcourt mate, what comes to mind? 

A killer. Man, I love playing with him. He’s only 18 years old, but he plays like a grown man. The way he carries himself, the swag he plays with, I feel like he’s the best point guard in the country right now. You see the numbers that he’s shooting (50% FG, 53% 3-PT FG), and I always tell him to stay humble. You know, the way he’s going right now, he’s putting himself in position to do what he wants to do long-term. I tell him to stay humble. He’s got a great head on his shoulders, and I’m glad I got him as my backcourt mate.

Let’s go back to your roots. You played high school basketball at Christian Brothers College High School for Justin Tatum, the father of Jayson Tatum. How would you describe that, and what is your relationship like with those guys? 

I loved it. I loved every second of it. He [Justin] taught me so much from the first time I met him. It’s crazy because the first time I met him was at Jayson’s game in his senior year of high school. I was in eighth grade, and the game was sold out and I couldn’t get in. My mom was trying to work something out for me to go, and he [Justin] gave us some tickets. They [Christian Brothers College High School] were playing St. Louis University High School and Jayson was in his senior year. I wanted to go to all of his games knowing what type of player he was and watching him growing up. He was like a big brother to me. I loved being coached by Coach Tatum. It wasn’t just about his coaching, but also about what he did off the floor for me. He was like another father figure. We still talk to this day. He’s with the Australian team right now over in the NBL. I’m so glad he’s doing well, and I’m proud of him. He’s still coaching me to this day. And Jayson, that’s like a big brother to me. He’s been there for a long time. I’ve known him for a long time now and he’s definitely giving me tips. He tells me to keep working and everything will work out.

So, did you know Justin would be your high school coach when he helped get you into that game? 

No, I didn’t know. It’s crazy how that works. I did not know. I was in eighth grade. I wasn’t in high school yet, but it’s crazy how that worked out. That was the first time I met him.

Did you think after that moment that you would play for Coach Tatum? 

I knew it was an option, but it was early on in my eighth grade year, so I still had time to think about what high school I was going to head to. Knowing that it was a possibility, and how that came to fruition, it was crazy how I met him.

What’s your why? 

My parents [Dennis and Alecia]. They put so much into me ever since day one, and I see them go hard every single day. They’ve never missed a game with the exception of one, and it was a game at Virginia Tech where their flight got turned around due to weather. I think that was the only game they’ve ever missed. I love them to death, and I want to give them the world when the time comes. Just seeing them work hard every day, and put food on the table and clothes on my back from day one, I definitely want to give them the world. That’s my why.

What do they do for a living? 

My mom works in HR, and my dad sells life insurance. I get that work ethic from them. My dad, every day, is grinding. My mom will get on a flight to see me play and is back at work the next morning getting on 6 or 7 a.m. flights. Just seeing how hard they work and the sacrifice they make for me, I owe them the world. 

Let’s go off the court …

The three artists on your pregame playlist? 

Lil Baby, Gunna and Veeze. I’ve been on Veeze heavy.

Hidden talent or hobby? 

Bowling. I love to go bowling. That, and playing pool.

How often do you bowl? 

I haven’t gone in a minute, but when I can, I go once or twice a month. I don’t go that often because of the schedule, but if my teammates want to go, I’m always in.

Who would play you in a movie? 

My favorite movie is “Like Mike,” so I’ll say Bow Wow.

Favorite meal? 

Spaghetti, salad and Hawaiian rolls.

The thing at the top of your Christmas list growing up that you got? 

I wanted shoes. I’m a sneakerhead, that’s my favorite thing. Any shoe that I could get, whether it was the hottest shoe or one that I liked, I had to have it.

Favorite shoe right now? 

Jordan-wise, I’d say Jordan 4s. I also like the Union dunks. That’s probably my favorite. And I like Air Force 1s. I’m from St. Louis, so I love Air Force shoes.

Your biggest NBA inspiration? 

Kobe. I love his mindset and work ethic, with how much of a student of the game that he is. Just watching him growing up and the battles that he went through, the things that he went through to get to where he is, and his killer mindset, that’s one. Right now, I’d say Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal with them being from St. Louis. I also love Damian Lillard. He’s my favorite player in the league right now. I’ve talked to Dame, I went to his camp, and he’s a great dude that is so down to earth. He’s probably one of the most solid dudes that I’ve met.

What do you want your last chapter of college basketball to be when it’s all said and done? What kind of legacy do you want to leave at Arizona? 

A comeback story. Somebody that didn’t quit, that went through all the trials and tribulations and fought through everything, and beat the odds when the whole world was against him. He stayed true to himself. 

And more than anything, I want to win a national championship for Arizona Basketball. I feel like we’ve got the team to do it, and the coaching staff to do it. That’s what I want my legacy to be. For the kids growing up who are watching me, and those following my story, I just say this: 

Don’t give up. Believe in God’s plan. And you can do it too.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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