It’s not often that sports bloggers admit they were wrong or missed something. I do NBA Draft rankings every year and then never check back in to see how they turned out. I confidently picked Virginia to win the national title the year they lost to UMBC. But I also wrote that UMBC was capable of a “historic upset” the same week. Accountability be damned.
Instead of making that mistake again, I am going to make a quick, early, and resolute amendment to something I wrote earlier this month.
A few weeks ago, I presented my annual “Georges Niang All-Stars“, which is full of the most fun and pleasing-to-watch players in college basketball. Maybe it was too early to write that column, because it now features a glaring hole:
Auburn freshman point guard Sharife Cooper is undeniably the most fun player in college basketball this season. Now, it is totally valid that I failed to name Cooper two weeks ago. When that post went live, Cooper had only played two games. The NCAA didn’t clear the Powder Springs, Georgia native to play until January 9, while it conducted an investigation into his eligibility.
Since joining the Tigers on the court, Cooper has been more than a spark plug. He’s completely overhauled how Auburn plays. If he had played enough minutes to qualify, he would lead the nation in usage rate. Everything Auburn does now runs through the hands of Cooper. It’s hard to fathom how this team functioned without him on the floor. Auburn is truly a new team with Cooper playing.
Before Cooper took the floor, Auburn played 11 games. The Tigers were a mediocre, if not outright bad, power conference team. They sat at a deceiving 6-5, winning just one game against a team ranked 130th or higher by KenPom in six tries.
In the six games Cooper has played, Auburn is 4-2 against six conference opponents, all ranked 90th or higher by KenPom. Tuesday night, the Tigers beat a Missouri team ranked 12th in the AP Poll, with Cooper leading the way. In six games, Cooper is averaging 22.3 points, 8.7 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steals. If he’d played enough games to qualify, he’d be leading the nation in assists per game and rank fourth nationally in points per game. He has Auburn not just playing better, but differently.
In the eleven games the Tigers played without Cooper, Auburn averaged 71.3 possessions per game. That would rank 123rd in Division I, essentially the middle of the pack. With Cooper in the lineup, Auburn is averaging 80.3 possessions per game. That would make Auburn the fastest team in college basketball, topping national leader Coppin State (79.2 possessions per game).
Auburn’s strategy with Cooper on the floor is simple. Off a rebound or a made basketball, get the ball to Sharife Cooper and let him make plays. He’s operating like a mobile quarterback in a two-minute drill. He calls his own number plenty, taking 33 percent of Auburn’s field goal attempts when on the floor, which would rank in the top 30 in the nation (again, if he qualified). Cooper uses his speed, agility, and ball-handling to get downhill in a hurry, finding his way to any spot he desires to reach. On this possession against Missouri, watch Cooper grab the rebound, flip the court with his speed, and take the ball right to the rim for a bucket.
Whether his driving leads to a look at the rim, a floater, or a jumper, Cooper is adept at finding the space to hit the available shot. Here he shows off how soft his floater can be from as far back as 12 to 15 feet:
Cooper is not, however, a score-first chucker. He is elite with the ball in his hands in space, drawing defenders from all over the court and opening up teammates.
Cooper’s eye for an open teammate is among the best in the sport. His assist rate of 57 percent, meaning he assists on more than half his teammates’ field goals when on the court, is proof of that. That would not only lead the nation this year by a wide margin, eclipsing current leader Jalen Moore of Oakland’s 49.8 percent mark, but would be the highest assist rate recorded since KenPom began tracking the stat in 2004. In fact, Cooper’s assist rate would be nearly three full percentage points higher than the previous recorded high, set by JJ Barea at Northeastern in 2006. This pass against Missouri shows Cooper can see beyond the easy and obvious pass, finding a teammate across the court with a whipped pass through traffic:
Because Cooper is both scoring at high rates and finding open teammates, defenders have taken to the only remaining option: fouling Cooper. The 6-foot-1, 180 pound guard has been bruised and battered by taller and slower players unable to stay in front of him. Cooper is exceptional at finding and playing beyond contact. In six games, he’s drawing 10.2 fouls per 40 minutes of action, which would, again, lead the nation. It would make Cooper only the second player to draw more than ten fouls per 40 minutes played since 2004.
For Auburn’s offense, that skill is an obvious boon. It puts the Tigers in the bonus and double bonus earlier in each half of the game, while racking up foul trouble for the players tasked with slowing Cooper down. At least one opponent has fouled out of five of Cooper’s six games played, including two Georgia defenders and three Mizzou Tigers.
If he continues to play this way, it’s going to become very easy to speak hyperbolically about Sharife Cooper. Are we ready for Allen Iverson comparisons? How many games can you miss and still be named an All-American? What about SEC Player of the Year? And then we reach the weirdest subplot of this story – Auburn self-imposed a one-year postseason ban in November as the NCAA continued to investigate the program. When they did so, many criticized the move as a mediocre team banning itself from a tournament it would have no prayer of reaching. With Cooper in the fold, that’s no longer the case. If the selection committee was evaluating the team that Auburn has become with Cooper in uniform, it’s hard to make a case that the Tigers aren’t worthy of an at-large bid. Yet the committee won’t have the chance to make that decision, thanks to a procedural decision surrounding cloudy investigations.
As a fan of the sport, that leaves things in limbo. Cooper is now must-watch television, but to what end? He’s playing his way higher into the first round of the NBA Draft, though his standing as a college player is messy. The ceiling for enjoyment is much lower in a season that we know ends short of the NCAA Tournament. Cooper may be exciting enough to overcome that drag. Go back and look at the three GIFs in this post. Look at the time remaining on the game clock. Those three plays happened on consecutive possessions! When you turn on an Auburn game, Cooper’s electricity flashes immediately.
I will surely not miss another Auburn game this season, starting Saturday against undefeated, No. 2 Baylor and frontrunner for National Defensive Player of the Year Davion Mitchell. Our lives would be better with Sharife Cooper invading March Madness, but you could say the same last year about so many of the stars of the game. We all wanted to see Obi Toppin, Malachi Flynn, and Cassius Winston have their NCAA Tournament moments. At least this year we’ll know that Cooper won’t make our March magical, rather than being blindsided with disappointment like last year.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.