North Carolina’s unexpected run to the men’s basketball national championship game this season won’t be such a surprise if it happens next year. After Sunday’s announcement that sophomore guard Caleb Love will return for his junior season, the Tar Heels will be considered one of the frontrunners.
Love joined Armando Bacot, RJ Davis and Leaky Black in announcing their returns to Chapel Hill. Brady Manek is the lone starter who won’t be back. Manek took advantage of the COVID-19 waiver to play a fifth season but exhausted his eligibility having previously played four seasons at Oklahoma.
“Caleb’s passion for this team and program are what motivates and drives him to win a national championship and eventually have a long, successful career in the NBA,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said in a statement. “Nobody is better at taking and making big shots in pressure situations. He’s one of the most gifted players I’ve ever been around and I’m extremely excited to coach him another season.”
The NCAA tournament enhanced Love’s stock in NBA circles. The 6-foot-5 St. Louis native averaged 18.8 points in those six games and came up big for Carolina when the stakes were the highest.
Love led the Heels past UCLA in the Sweet 16 by scoring 27 of his career-high 30 points in the second half. His 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of 7-footer Mark Williams with 24.8 seconds sealed left their Final Four win over Duke and cemented his place in rivalry history.
But he was still projected on most mock drafts as either a second-round pick or going undrafted.
Love returned to school after his freshman season knowing he needed to improve his shooting. As a sophomore, he shot 36 percent from 3-point range, which was a big increase after making just 26 percent from behind the arc as a freshman.
He averaged 15.9 points per game, which was second on the team. And he proved durable as his 1,330 minutes played was the most by any Tar Heel since at least 2003-04 when the category was first displayed in the record book.
Love’s decision to return stands out considering he is one of only two players that ranked in the top 20 of the recruiting class of 2020 who returned to college for a second season. Love was ranked No. 14 in the class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. That was one spot ahead of former UNC teammate Day’Ron Sharpe, who was taken 29th overall in the 2021 NBA draft.
Center Moussa Cisse, who was ranked No. 10, played his first season at Memphis and transferred to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season. Makur Maker, who was ranked No. 18 and played at Howard as a freshman, is the only other top-20 player who did not enter the NBA draft after one season. Maker opted to play this past season professionally in Australia.
With Love back, the comparisons to Carolina’s 2017 national championship team will certainly begin in earnest. That team lost the 2016 national title game in dramatic fashion and started a text chain called redemption en route to claiming a sixth NCAA banner the next season. The Heels would like to duplicate that feat next season and Love’s return is a major reason why it is feasible.
This story was originally published April 24, 2022 5:15 PM.