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Hoops Preview: Auburn has elevated itself behind Sharife Cooper

The freshman point guard has Auburn playing revitalized basketball through his creativity and tenacity.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When your program commits to a life of dodging and ducking the NCAA under Bruce Pearl, you might as well get some good players out of the deal.

Pearl, now in his seventh year at Auburn, has had little problem recruiting elite talent. And much like his contemporary John Calipari, he has had little issues making that talent work together, stoking Auburn to become a perennial SEC contender.

Then again, there’s always the downside of being a smooth criminal. Auburn got pegged with an NCAA investigation to start the beginning of the 2020-2021 season, taking Sharife Cooper off the board for an indefinite time. Normally that wouldn’t be as much of an issue for Pearl, who has also been able to keep some of his foundational players around for more than one year. But the Tigers graduated five seniors in 2020 and waived goodbye to lottery prospect Isaac Okoro. The loss of Cooper, a blip in most other years, became a hole.

It’s a hole Auburn struggled to fill, going 6-5 over the first 11 games of the season, along with an 0-3 start to conference play.

Of course, you know the story at this point if you’ve done even cursory research into Auburn’s season. Cooper was cleared by the NCAA before their date with Alabama, and Auburn has been revitalized since. They’re still only 3-2 in that stretch, but dropped a four-point game to Alabama, the hottest team in the country, and a two-point road game in Arkansas. In the interim, they’ve won three games by an average of 16 points, including putting triple digits on South Carolina. Cooper has been the galvanizing agent, averaging 21.1 points and 9 assists per game.

So, while the Tigers certainly appeared to win the tougher of the two games against Tennessee and Auburn, it’s not as if they’ll be able to walk right over the Plainsmen. Auburn is playing energetic, fun basketball at the moment, and they’re looking for a highly-ranked pelt to legitimize their turnaround.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (10-2) Auburn (9-7)
Position Missouri (10-2) Auburn (9-7)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Sharife Cooper (Fr., 6'1", 180)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Jamal Johnson (Jr., 6'4", 195)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Allen Flanigan (So., 6'6", 215)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Jaylin Williams (So., 6'8", 230)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) JT Thor (Fr., 6'10", 205)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

If you’ve read any of these previews this year, you’ll know I like to start with the senior class. However, with Auburn we can’t begin the scout without looking at Sharife Cooper.

Cooper has been a tornado for the Tigers since arriving a few weeks ago, specifically in two areas — his ability to get to the free throw line and his ability to create for others. He’d rank among the top five players nationally in both of those categories. But the best part for Auburn? He does both things without risking too much negative blowback — he doesn’t turn the ball over all that often and he doesn’t draw many fouls himself. Cooper isn’t necessarily an efficient shooter or a prolific defender, but he makes the rest of the team better.

This comes in handy with the amount of threes Auburn is looking to shoot, as Cooper’s determination to get to the rim opens up shooters elsewhere. It should be noted before we move on that almost everyone on Auburn’s roster will not hesitate to shoot a three if you give it to them. The Tigers do have a pair of sharpshooters in Allen Flanigan and Justin Powell. Powell shoots a better percentage — 44.2 to 39 — but Flanigan has taken about twice as many shots. Flanigan is also a more rounded offensive player, shooting over 60 percent from two-point range as well. Don’t discount Powell, though, as he brings rebounding and his own propensity for playmaking to the mix. Both are also adept at getting to the free throw line.

Even outside of the shooters, Auburn has the size to be effective around the rim. Freshman JT Thor, standing 6’10”, shoots well from both the floor and the free throw line and plays good defense. His lack of muscle, however, makes him susceptible to both fouls and being taken advantage of on the glass. Sophomore combo forward Jaylin Williams helps out with the interior defense and adds some three-level scoring, though he’s a bit prone to turnovers. Sophomore Devan Cambridge also puts up a high percentage of two-pointers while providing Pearl another large wing to play on the perimeter. Junior Jamal Johnson might be the coach’s best non-Cooper guard, however, as he’s incredibly sturdy with the ball and shoots a respectable percentage from three (35.1 percent) and generally provides Auburn with valuable, mistake-free minutes.

The Tigers do have some depth at the post position, but both have similar issues. Babatunde Akingbola and Dylan Cardwell both stand 6’10” or above and provide efficient scoring and rim protection. But they turn the ball over with abandon and are prone to foul trouble — it would be helpful to take them out of the equation, if possible.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Auburn Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 109.9 (58) 16.8 (145) 51 (130) 20.2 (218) 30.8 (85) 41.1 (25) 29 (306) 55.3 (35) 72.7 (118) 10.5 (281) 9 (168)
Auburn 96.2 (72) 16.1 (26) 48.7 (132) 20.2 (121) 30.2 (252) 33 (200) 30.4 (70) 50.4 (193) 69.4 (141) 14.7 (13) 9.4 (148)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Stick with what works

Auburn is tall, athletic and wants to play fast. They’ve got good rim defenders and prevent teams from beating them from three-point range. But there’s not much else you can say about their defense. They won’t force a lot of turnovers, aren’t great at two-point defense and allow offensive boards. While Missouri will have to be wary of guys like Thor and Williams, they should feel confident in attacking the rim and trying to roll up the foul count. If they can do that and shoot even a modest percentage from three, they’ll be on their way to another road win.

When Auburn has the ball...

Auburn Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Auburn 110.5 (51) 16.3 (85) 53.5 (56) 22.8 (315) 34.5 (30) 35.5 (97) 33.8 (161) 55.9 (26) 67.6 (255) 9.3 (207) 12.4 (338)
Missouri 91.8 (22) 17.3 (210) 44.6 (17) 18.2 (226) 30.4 (257) 34.1 (225) 28.6 (22) 45.5 (48) 66.7 (46) 7.1 (241) 8.6 (208)
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | How to handle Sharife Cooper

After spending the first 11 games being investigated by the NCAA — a staple of any well-run Bruce Pearl program! — Sharife Cooper was cleared for game action and has been electric since. He’s not the most efficient shooter, but the former five-star point guard gets anywhere he wants to go, drawing 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes and posting a 57.5 assist rate, the latter of which would rank first in the country by a wide margin if he were eligible to be counted. He’s very good in his own right, but he also takes the offense up another notch.

So how does Missouri stop Cooper? Do they try to avoid fouling him and make him get his points from the field? Do they turn to Dru or Mark Smith to get a bigger, stronger body on him? If any defense can figure Cooper out, you’d think it would be Martin’s.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 74, Auburn 73 | The win probability here is 52-48 in favor of Missouri. That’s almost as close as you can get to a coin flip. Missouri has beat better and more purely talented teams than Auburn this season, but they probably haven’t played a team that’s this hot. If they’re able to contain Sharife Cooper — or at the very least keep up with him — they’ll have yet another impressive road win to put in their bag.