AUBURN — Normally, if a player misses 11 games, Bruce Pearl would try to work him back into the rotation slowly. Likely off the bench.
But Sharife Coper isn’t a normal talent. His absence wasn’t a normal situation. The NCAA held out the five-star freshman point guard for the first seven weeks of the season as it reviewed his eligibility. So when he was finally cleared late Friday night, Pearl decided he wanted to make a statement.
The coach talked to Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and Jamal Johnson about inserting Cooper into Auburn’s starting lineup immediately. “We all know how he affects our play,” he told them. And each of those veterans offered to come off the bench to make that happen.
“That tells you about the culture and the chemistry in our locker room,” Pearl said.
It also tells you what type of player Cooper is. He’s not just any freshman. When he signed last year, he did so as the highest-rated recruit in program history. He’s the only true point guard on the roster. Auburn built this team around him. And he showed why in his long-awaited debut Saturday.
Cooper scored a team-high 26 points on 8-for-19 shooting (1-for-7 from 3, 9-for-10 from the free throw line), dished out nine assists and also chipped in four rebounds and three steals in 33 minutes.
Auburn lost 94-90 to rival Alabama. Cooper put some of that blame on himself — he missed two 3-pointers and committed a crucial turnover in the final two minutes, during which the Crimson Tide (9-3, 4-0 SEC) went on a game-winning 5-0 run. But in one game, the freshman point guard proved that his presence alone changes what this Tigers (6-6, 0-4) team is capable of.
“He's definitely, obviously, made us better offensively,” Pearl said.
It took Cooper a few minutes to shake the rust off. He did miss 11 games and 72 days of practice, after all. But once he recorded his first assist — on a Johnson 3-pointer with 8:35 remaining in the first half — things appeared to slow down for him.
“I hadn’t played in a long time so I didn’t want to force nothing. I just wanted to get the feeling, get the feeling of pick and roll, get the feel of their defense, get the feel of our offense,” Cooper said. “I knew once I kind of settled down things would get to flowing and the offense would look better, and it did.”
His scoring ability was impressive, especially in the second half when he poured in 20 points on 5-for-10 shooting and made all nine free throw attempts. But what stood out most was the way he steadied an offense accustomed to playing without a true point guard.
Cooper said that while he was forced to sit, he would watch games and envision the types of plays he would be able to make for his teammates if he ever got back on the floor. He made a lot of them against the Crimson Tide, assisting on two 3-pointers and four alley-oops – none more impressive than the one just before halftime, where he split two defenders near half court and lobbed a ball to a cutting Devan Cambridge.
Imagine how the offense might look when freshman sharpshooter Justin Powell returns from a head injury.
“I felt completely different. It felt really fun,” said freshman forward JT Thor, who threw down two of those alley-oops. “He sees the whole floor. He can make plays for himself and he can make plays for everybody else. So it was just exciting for him to be back.”
For Cooper, it was a relief. He said he would be lying if he didn’t admit that the last few months were “very hard.” He grew up dreaming about playing basketball at the college level, and for much of this season, he didn’t know if he would be able to.
But he is now. Auburn fans spent weeks rallying around a cry of “Free Sharife!” on social media and at games, and on Saturday, they finally got their wish.
The freshman point guard, as well as the Tigers, should only get better from here.
“Through the ups and downs, through the trials and tribulations, I always told myself I won't let it break me,” Cooper said. “I think that's what kind of got me through it, as well as my family, my coaches, my support staff, as well as Auburn fans. I couldn't be more thankful for them. I constantly see just constant support and people fighting for me. That kind of helped me keep my spirits up, and I'm thankful for those people.”