Tearful Caleb Love left to lament missed chances as Arizona falters in Sweet 16 yet again

LOS ANGELES — Twenty minutes after another promising Arizona basketball season ended shy of the Final Four, Caleb Love sat in front of his locker, head bowed, face solemn, eyes wet with tears.

To his left were the gray Kobes with gold trim that Love wore during a cold-shooting first half. At his feet were the colorful green pair of Nikes that he changed into at halftime in an unsuccessful attempt to reverse his mojo.

When a reporter asked Love to describe how a 77-72 Sweet 16 loss to Clemson went so wrong, the Arizona guard was too distraught to answer in complete sentences. He could only get out a few words at a time before pausing to take a gulp of air and slowly exhale.

“It’s tough,” Love began. “I love these guys … pffft … been through so much … pffft … sad we couldn’t finish it.”

This was supposed to be Love’s chance to showcase how he has evolved since transferring from North Carolina last spring. At Arizona, Love has worked tirelessly to turn himself into more than a streak shooter notorious for shooting his teams into and out of games. He talked this week about the growth he has made making the right reads, creating for his teammates and locking down on defense even when his shot isn’t falling.

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Caleb Love
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Sweet 16 vs. Clemson

What happened instead on Thursday was Love reverted to old habits at the worst possible time. He shot 5-for-18 from the field, missed all nine 3-pointers that he attempted and didn’t tally an assist until the game’s final four minutes. When asked about his shot selection after the game, he pushed back against the idea that any of his attempts weren’t good looks.

“I took the shots that I work on,” he said. “They just didn’t fall for me tonight. It was obviously the worst time for them not to fall.”

(From left) Keshad Johnson, Caleb Love, Pelle Larsson and Jaden Bradley of the Arizona Wildcats look on late during a loss to Clemson on Thursday. (Harry How/Getty Images)
(From left) Keshad Johnson, Caleb Love, Pelle Larsson and Jaden Bradley of the Arizona Wildcats look on late during a loss to Clemson on Thursday. (Harry How/Getty Images)

In reality, Love and fellow guards Kylan Boswell and Pelle Larsson sometimes settled for makeable shots rather than working to create good ones. The first sliver of space they got, they were all too willing to hoist a 3-pointer, even after they rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit by attacking off the dribble and drawing fouls or finishing at the rim.

When Clemson switched to zone for the final 10 minutes of the game, Arizona went right back to hoisting too many panicky 3s early in the shot clock. Twenty-eight of the Wildcats’ 67 field goal attempts were 3-pointers. They only made five of them, two by reserve guard Jaden Bradley.

“When they got in foul trouble, we settled a little bit when we just needed to drive,” center Oumar Ballo said. “Those tough shots we took at the end of the game will haunt us. That cost us.”

It has now been 23 years since Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas and Luke Walton led Arizona to its last Final Four appearance. Since then, the Wildcats have reached 11 Sweet 16s and five Elite Eights yet failed to break through.

The label of March underachiever is the one criticism that third-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd will face after an otherwise outstanding start to his tenure in Tucson. He’s 84-17 in non-NCAA tournament games. He’s 4-3 in March Madness. His Arizona teams have received top-two seeds in each of the past three NCAA tournaments yet have not advanced beyond the Sweet 16.

There were a lot of reasons that trend continued Thursday.

Arizona players had too many miscommunications defending baseline out-of-bounds plays that led to easy baskets.

Lloyd had no answers when Clemson exploited Ballo’s lack of mobility defensively or when the Tigers went to zone down the stretch.

And yes, when Arizona needed Love to perform at a conference player of the year level, his jumper deserted him and so did his shot selection.

“It’s very disappointing,” Love said. “Our goal was to win a national championship. For it to end like this is brutal.”