Auburn may have come up just short against rival Alabama, but the Tigers got arguably a bigger victory as freshman Sharife Cooper was finally cleared by the NCAA to participate in games.
After being held out a total of 11 games and a little over 70 practices, Cooper was deemed eligible to play in a statement released by Auburn University Athletics on Jan. 9.
Cooper came to Auburn as the top-ranked recruit in Auburn Men’s Basketball history. By his senior season Cooper was ranked the No. 3 point guard nationally by 247Sports, averaging 30.6 points, 7.8 assists and 3.6 steals per game as a senior. Cooper also became McEachern High School’s all-time leader scorer, eclipsing 2,000 career points on senior night.
He was held out of play as the NCAA was conducting an investigation, but after being cleared to play against Alabama he made quite the debut, scoring 26 points and adding nine assists against the Tide. He followed that up Wednesday with a 28-point, 12-assist, five-rebound performance in Auburn's 95-77 win on the road over Georgia.
“You could tell how hard Sharife has worked to stay right and stay ready and how dynamic of a player he is,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl last Saturday. “We have obviously been working on building a program around him the last couple years knowing he would be coming in. It’s great to have him back.”
"We had absolutely had no idea when he would be cleared. We hoped he was going to be cleared like all of our student-athletes."
As a reward for his patience and dedication, Pearl gave Cooper the nod to start against Alabama, a decision he did not regret.
"It was just really fun (having Cooper back)," Thor said. "The alley-oops were fun especially. I didn't think I was going to catch the first one, but it went in somehow. I was just really excited for Sharife and for the team."
Despite Cooper’s strong debut, the Tigers still fell by four points against Alabama, a result that doesn’t sit well with the freshman.
“I made some mistakes,” said Cooper. “I really put this game on me because there were a lot of things that I did wrong in the closing seconds. But this is the first game and we've got a lot to learn, and I'm ready for this journey.”
Pearl said there's no question that the Auburn offense, which put up 90 points against the Tide, is better with Cooper running the show, although there is still plenty to work on.
"There's just a lot of adjustments that we're going to need to make as we continue to now figure out how to win with him and play with him," said Pearl. "He’s a difference maker. You remember when I talked about Jared Harper, I said, ‘Jared Harper is going to be worth the price of admission.’ The same thing is true with Sharife. You’re just going to enjoy watching him play. It’s not that difficult to figure out. You put him in a ball screen and give him some space, have some guys move around him a little bit, and let him make plays. There’s not much better offense than that."
The journey continued Wednesday after print deadline, when the Tigers faced Georgia. The Tigers will host a reeling Kentucky team with a 4-7 record at 1 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.