A (Caleb) Love letter: Senior’s passion for big stage helps Arizona Wildcats beat Dayton, advance to Sweet 16

Arizona’s Caleb celebrates after the Wildcats defeated the Dayton Flyers 78-68 in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – A year ago, Caleb Love felt the weight of college basketball expectations on his shoulders.

After helping North Carolina finish as national runner-up in 2022, Love knew scrutiny would be intense in 2023. But a disappointing season resulted in no NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament invitation and accusatory eyes on the then-junior, who went looking for a fresh start and a return to the big stage.

His transfer to Arizona delivered just that Saturday as he posted 19 points, while shooting 6-for-15 from the field and 3-for-8 from 3-point range, in a victory over the No. 7 seed Dayton Flyers 78-68. The Wildcats now head to Los Angeles for coach Tommy Lloyd’s second Sweet 16 in three season at Arizona.

March seems to bring out the best in Love.

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

“Whatever I can do to get the team to win – scoring, rebounding, play-making – whatever I’ve got to do.”

In the first half though, that’s when Love was cooking. He scored 13 points and shot 5-for-7 from the field. He scored over a quarter of the Wildcats’ points in the half. When the clock hit all zeroes, he had a record of his own, holding the most points of any active player in the NCAA Tournament.

“He’s a great player,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “I knew he was going to play good today. I knew he had the look. It’s a rough patch for these guys. Caleb’s been through a lot in his career. You hit a rough patch where you start getting accolades and honors and start thinking about things. I knew he had to play through a little bit.”

Before Saturday’s game, Love was in a bit of a slump. In the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, he averaged 8.5 points and shot 25% from the field.

It was a different story against Dayton. Love started out strong and sent a message to the Flyers.

“Early in the game, they’re one of the fastest teams in the country, and they’re terrific in transition and broken floors,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “(Love) got away from us a few times early, and we know how talented of a guy he is. You can’t give him space.

“I thought we made it harder for him. We made them have to work for what they got.”

Caleb Williams, left, looks confident as the Arizona Wildcats prepare to meet the Dayton Flyers in the NCAA Tournament. He had good reason. (Photo by Hayden Cilley/Cronkite News)

No matter how Love performs, he has his teammates’ support. His postseason experience is a game-changer for the rest of the team.

“(It’s) just a help for us because they’ve been there, they’ve done it and they know what it takes to get there,” center Oumar Ballo said Wednesday.

Heading into Thursday’s opening-round game with Long Beach State, Lloyd said he wasn’t concerned about Love’s scoring slump.

“Well, you’re a great player and you’re fine,” Lloyd said. “A player like him that is a scorer, they’ve had this stuff happen to them before in their career, so they know how to respond. … He just needs to let it rip.”

On Thursday, Love let it rip against The Beach, scoring 18 points on 6-for-17 shooting, while pulling down 11 rebounds and dishing out five assists. Although the efficiency wasn’t there, Love said Friday that he knew a beneficial way to impact the game.

“I think Coach Lloyd and the coaching staff have been challenging me to do that (rebounding) all year long,” Love said. “They let me go to the offensive glass. It’s my job to deliver on that end. I’ve definitely been locking in on that, keying on that.

I think it helps the team. We can get out on the break. When I lead the break, I feel like I find my teammates and we have a good offense.”

Another standout from Saturday’s game was Love’s teammate, sophomore guard Jaden Bradley. He put up 12 points in 27 minutes and had a game-sealing strip-block on Dayton junior forward DaRon Holmes II. Bradley understood how critical it is to get Love going on the offensive end.

“Caleb’s a great player,” Bradley said. “He can get it going at any time. Playing within the offense and him finding the shots. I think Big O ( Ballo) does a great job of creating double-teams and is able to get Caleb going.”

The Wildcats have been at the center of numerous storylines in the 2023-24 season, from a No. 1 ranking in the country in December to Love winning Pac-12 Player of the Year to the team’s elimination by Oregon in the conference tournament.

Love just wants to continue delivering confidence to his team.

“I think you have to have a sense of calmness,” Love said. “You can’t really be panicking in these moments because this could be your last game, and I think you’ve got to have a sense of, like, calmness and poise.”

Sometimes, focus is drawn away from the basketball court and onto those accolades. Since the beginning of the tournament, Lloyd has not been surprised about Love’s improvement.

The dude’s a baller,” he said. “I have complete trust in him.”

Arizona will take on the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 3 Baylor and No. 6 seed Clemson in Los Angeles at Crypto.com Arena. The Wildcats are two wins away from the NCAA Men’s Final Four, which will take place in Glendale’s State Farm Stadium from April 6-8.

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.