With point guard Sharife Cooper breathing new life into the team, Auburn looks poised to play the role of giant killer down the stretch of the season.
After knocking of No. 12 Missouri 88-82 on Tuesday night, the Tigers now turn their sights on Saturday's showdown against No. 2 Baylor.
Since gaining eligibility and stepping into a game for the first time against Alabama on Jan. 9, Cooper has been the driving force behind the Tigers' offense, averaging a team-high 22.3 points and nearly nine assists a game.
Cooper's solid play down the stretch against Missouri drew praise from Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
"We talk about him being an alpha dog and what that's all about. He's the biggest little man out there, period," said Pearl, whose Tigers sit at 10-7 on the season. "Everybody knows it. But, when it comes to the end of a game, he expects to win. He expects to make the plays, and if he doesn't, he takes full responsibility. The winning can happen on both ends. He had eight rebounds. He's obviously a terrific athlete and has great quickness."
On Saturday, Cooper will face an undefeated Baylor team that features strong guard play, including that of Auburn transfer Davion Mitchell, who is averaging 11.5 points a game and has a team-high 83 assists on the season. Mitchell is just one piece of a Baylor defense that is smothering opponents' offense, allowing only 62 points a game.
The monumental challenge awaiting Cooper and the Tigers is not lost on Pearl.
"We are going to go up against a Baylor team with probably the best defensive guards in the country," he said. "I’m sure they are excited about the opportunity to try to shut off Sharife’s water, and they are very capable of doing it. That’s going to be by far our toughest challenge.”
With Cooper directing the offense, JT Thor has quickly ramped up his production, scoring in double figures in five out of the past six games, where he's averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Thor has also been a monster around the rim, averaging more than two blocks a game.
"We’ve got to get better defensively," said Pearl. "We’ve got to get better rebounding. We’ve got to take care of the ball better, not turn it over quite so much, but we’ve made progress. I’ve never faulted our work ethic."
The Tigers will try to play the role of giant killers again when they take on Baylor at 3 p.m. Saturday in Waco, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN.