The fall of 2019 held a lot of promise for the Mizzou Basketball program.
Cuonzo Martin and his squad were coming off a disappointing injury-plagued season. But a summer of following around some elite local prospects like Cam’Ron Fletcher and Caleb Love, as well as national prospects like Josh Christopher, left a lot of Mizzou fans dreaming of what could be. Recruiting is always a land of disappointment, and Mizzou ended up signing just one prep prospect that fall and it was Jordan Wilmore. Martin watched Fletcher commit to Kentucky, Christopher to Arizona State, and then Love to North Carolina.
But Love hurt the most. He played a position of need, and the staff worked hard to stay in the race and nearly pulled it off. But the lure of Chapel Hill and Tobacco Road was too strong. Roy Williams had National Championships, and donning the argyle-accented uniforms is hard for anyone to turn down.
If you remove about a six week run from the middle of February in 2022 all the way to the Championship Game, things really hadn’t gone according to plan for Caleb Love at North Carolina. He was woefully inefficient as a freshman, and had some early struggles as a sophomore before the aforementioned 6 week run. But as it looked like Love, and Carolina for that matter, were putting it all together in that late run last season, the struggles returned this year. North Carolina went from Preseason Number 1 to missing the NCAA Tournament.
While Love was the target of a lot of the blame from fans, most of the media after the season have spread the blame around. Whether is was poor roster construction by Hubert Davis, an undisciplined approach offensively, or just a team who had lost whatever it was they had, it was a disappointing season for everyone. Including Caleb Love.
And to be sure, Love wasn’t blameless in the downfall. His usage and %shots went up, and his efficiency went down. He was awful in late clock situations, and his three point shooting dropped below 30% after shooting 36% as a sophomore. In all, UNC finished the season with 2,686 offensive possessions for which Love was responsible for 23.8% of those offensive possessions and his efficiency was just 0.858 points per possession. So clearly he shared some of the blame of what went wrong in Chapel Hill.
But I’ve long been a believer in Love’s talent going back to his sophomore season at CBC. He’s shown what he’s capable of with high level performances in the Sweet 16 and then the Final Four. He just hasn’t been able to put it all together with consistency. I also believe that while he “caught a heater” late last year being at North Carolina, a team and a program that plays a very loose style of basketball with a lot of freedom, the Tar Heels weren’t the best spot for a player like Love. At this point Love needs to be reigned in a bit, given some structure and put in more positions to succeed. He also needs to pass the ball more, as his assist rate dropped from nearly 20% to just 16.4% last year.
Caleb Love from Sophomore to Junior
There have been signs which have pointed to growth, even through the shooting struggles. His 2FG% and turnover rates have improved each year. Lower turnover rates implies better decision making and improved two-point shooting implies better finishing around the rim. And indeed Love improved around the rim, finishing at 50% versus 47.8% as a sophomore, per Hoop-Math.com.
But another consideration is how Love was deployed at UNC, mostly with fellow Combo Guard R.J. Davis for the bulk of their playing time. Love played 87% of the minutes and Davis played 85%, meaning there were just 306 possessions where Love was on the floor and Davis wasn’t. Without Davis, the efficiency margins suffered. The offense put up 0.05 PPP less and the defense gave up 0.10 PPP more. With Davis, Love shared the primary ball handling duties. But Carolina’s turnaround the season before lined up with moving Davis to more primary ball handling duties, letting Love become a playmaker off the ball. Both players excelled.
At this stage in the game, Love has to at least have an eye on his sinking NBA draft stock. There’s now three years of game tape of Love in college and very little overall production to show for it. If Love is going to be an impactful NBA player, one who can find a home within a good second unit, it’s unlikely his overall profile will be a ball dominant guard. Rather his impact will be as a floor spacer, as a cutter, and then as someone who can make reads off those two things (oh and defense, he needs to defend a lot).
So Love needs to find a home where he can get more open catch and shoots. Per Synergy, Love’s open catch and shoot numbers are very good at 1.286 points per possession, he just didn’t get very many of them. Carolina’s offense doesn’t really prioritize off-ball cuts either, but Love was good there too at 1.429 PPP.
Enter Dennis Gates
So this is why I think the best fit for Love is with Missouri, and more specifically with Dennis Gates.
Missouri took 734 catch and shoot jump shots on 2,151 field goal attempts last year (again, per Synergy). Nearly half of those catch and shoot shots were unguarded. They also had 8.3% of their offense generated off cuts, and 22% on transition. All things which should suit a player like Love.
Moreso, Love will not be a primary ball handler on the roster next year. As it stands, Nick Honor and Sean East II are both set to return, with freshman Anthony Robinson II also set to arrive. The point guard position is taken care of. The hope and expectation at this point is that Isiaih Mosley returns as well. What Mizzou needs is a secondary ball handler who can score the ball. They need to find a replacement for D’Moi Hodge’s production and DeAndre Gholston’s shot-making.
If Mosley and Kobe Brown are both back, you still need another guy who can get you points. And in Gates’ offense and stylistic approach, having Mosley, Love, and Brown complementing each other just makes all the sense in the world. If Mosley doesn’t return, and/or if Brown stays in the draft, then the dynamics change a bit. But as it stands now, the guy I think makes the most sense for the finishing touch on the roster is Caleb Love.
At North Carolina Love was looked to as the primary creator. At Mizzou next year he moves to a co-creator position with an All-SEC performer and another efficient scorer in Mosley.
Imagine this ? Wouldn’t be a backcourt remotely close to it @caleb2love @Isiaihletrellm1 #TrenchWork #throwback pic.twitter.com/jHR824sP10— Pep Stanciel (@PepStanciel) March 31, 2023
Even without Mosley, I think Love fits. Mostly because he won’t be a primary handler, and he can still be a creator. Gates so far has helped turn Brown into a dangerous three-point shooter to accompany his already polished bully ball approach around the rim. D’Moi Hodge went from 29.9% three point shooting as a junior at Cleveland State to a 40.0% shooter as a super-senior at Mizzou. Gholston had an Offensive Rating of just 92.6 at Milwaukee his last season, and at Mizzou he improved to 101.2. Noah Carter and Nick Honor improved their shooting as well.
It comes down to this: I believe that Gates understands how to create efficient offense. And how to put his players in good positions to score. I also believe he can do that with the guy who got away three years ago, and I think he can help renew the player we all thought Caleb Love would become.