After starting out its SEC slate of games with four-straight losses, the Auburn men's basketball team got a much-needed infusion of talent and play-making skills when the NCAA cleared star point guard Sharife Cooper for play in early January.
The addition of Cooper has made an immediate impact for the Tigers, who have barely dropped a contest against SEC leader Alabama and picked up two wins over Georgia and Kentucky since the talented true freshman took over the reins at point guard.
Cooper has had an outstanding start to his Auburn career, averaging a team-leading 21.7 points, four rebounds and nearly 10 assists in his three games directing the Auburn offense. To put his dishing prowess in perspective, Cooper has accumulated 29 assists in three games. The team leader in assists, Justin Powell, has managed just 47 in 10 games. Making Cooper's immediate impact all the more remarkable is the fact that he missed 72 practices with his teammates while awaiting a ruling on his eligibility by the NCAA.
"He’s been with us now for about 10 days," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on Tuesday. "He has a high basketball IQ, a really good leader. He’s been waiting and staying right and staying ready. It just tells you how hard he worked on his own. It tells you how hard he worked by himself to stay right and ready. A lot of kids would have opted out and done something different. He hung in there because he knew he was eligible and in good standing."
Pearl likened Cooper absence this season as like "playing without your quarterback."
"Now, Allen Flanigan gets to play off the ball where he can be a more dominant player," said Pearl. "Obviously, we are without Justin Powell right now — day-to-day with the concussion protocol — but Justin did a yeoman’s job at point guard.
"We’re obviously better with our quarterback. He makes everybody better. He’s a pass-first, unselfish, high-IQ point guard, and one of the best point guards in the league."
Cooper has plenty of room for improvement, though, as he has not been much of a threat from beyond the arc, hitting only one of his 16 three-point attempts. When asked about Cooper's struggles from long range, Pearl just emphasized that he has trust in his point guard.
"He can shoot it," Pearl said. "I put the ball in his hands and trust him. That’s what I do with my players. I trust them. And if he’s open, he better shoot it."
The Tigers' recent success has helped with the team's confidence, added Pearl.
"I’m just happy for the kids. Losing wears you out," he said. "No matter how much we were prepared to have a developmental season — and we still are, this is a developmental year, we are the youngest team in the country to play a game this year, the youngest, the least experienced — losing takes its toll. We won a couple games against two teams, Georgia and Kentucky, that matter. You look at the schedule. We’ve got to play better to be able to win. So the attitude is good, and we feel good that we’re playing better. Is it good enough to keep winning? We’ll find out.”
The Tigers (8-6) will find out more on Saturday when they travel to Columbia to face a largely untested South Carolina team, who has had seven games either canceled or postponed due to Covid-19. The Tigers will face the Gamecocks (3-4) at 11 a.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2.