As mid-season additions go, Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper has been anything but fair to middling.
Cooper, who played his first game Jan. 9, has a chance to be only the third freshman to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Markelle Fultz (Washington) and Kenny Anderson (Georgia Tech) are the only two freshmen to do it. So did Danny Ainge (BYU), but assists were not an official statistic when he played.
Cooper’s averages going into Saturday’s game at Kentucky are 20.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists.
In Southeastern Conference games, Cooper leads in assists (9.1 apg), is second in scoring (20.8 ppg) and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4-to-1).
Numbers aside, Cooper has had an immediate and enduring impact for Auburn.
After having to sit out the first 11 games because of eligibility issues, Cooper scored 26 points and got credit for nine assists in a 94-90 loss to Alabama.
“He makes them a completely different team,” Alabama Coach Nate Oats said.
Television analyst Dan Dakich went further by saying of Cooper, “He’s a season-changer.”
Among the highlights so far:
▪ Earlier this week in a 73-67 victory at Vanderbilt, Cooper scored 18 of his 19 points in the second half. That included 11 straight in one stretch.
“Sharife played great in the second half,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said after the game. “He didn’t have a turnover in the game. That was just fun to watch. He’s so hard to guard. So unselfish. It’s why you’ve got to have a great quarterback. You put it in their hands and let them make plays.”
It should be noted that turnovers have been an issue. Cooper has had four or more in seven of his 10 games.
▪ Last week, Cooper’s 14 assists in an overtime loss at Ole Miss were two shy of a program record.
▪ In the 95-77 victory over Georgia, Cooper scored or assisted on 20 of Auburn’s final 24 points.
▪ When Auburn beat Missouri 88-82, the Tigers were outscored by 14 when Cooper was on bench with three fouls. In the 28 minutes he played, Auburn outscored Missouri by 20.
CBS analyst Jim Spanarkel, who will provide commentary on the Kentucky-Auburn game telecast, noted how Cooper exudes confidence.
“It not only kind of empowers him on the floor, but it seems to empower his team as well . . . ,” Spanarkel said. “When he doesn’t have the ball — let’s say on a broken play — one of the things I see with him is that he’s going toward the ball when the shot clock gets down. A lot of times guys will shy away from the ball when it starts to get to crunch time on the shot clock or the end of a game.”
Another distinguishing characteristic of Cooper’s game is an ability to draw fouls. Although he’s played in just 10 of Auburn’s 21 games, Cooper leads the team in free throw attempts (94) and makes (77). In six games, he’s shot 10 or more free throws. That’s includes 5-for-10 in Auburn’s earlier victory over Kentucky. He had eight assists in that game.
Vandy’s star sophomore, Scotty Pippen Jr., fouled out in 24 minutes against Auburn.
Spanarkel likened Cooper to Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets in terms of the ability to “throw his body at a defender while at the same time controlling his body to get a shot off.”
UK Coach John Calipari has chided his players for avoiding contact and flipping up shots.
“I think it’s kind of a lost art, especially for a freshman,” Spanarkel said of seeking contact. “A lot of times guys are pulling up for jump shots and floaters and three-point shots.”
Against Missouri, Cooper shot 21 free throws. He made 18.
Pearl has noted Cooper’s lack of size. Auburn lists him at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds.
“To be a great under-sized player, you’ve got to be the toughest guy on the floor,” the Auburn coach said after his team beat South Carolina. “Sharife is going to get bounced every game. It doesn’t bother him.”
Georgia Coach Tom Crean advised pressuring Cooper, but he added a cautious note.
“He’s very adept at drawing fouls,” Crean said. “He’s very good driving into your body, selling it to the referee. So you’ve got to be smart about him.”
Cooper’s father, Omar Cooper, was Brandon Boston’s AAU coach. One of his sisters, Te’a, plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA,
Having said that he planned for more than a year to put Cooper in charge, Pearl said, “He’s a coach on the floor.”
Auburn at Kentucky
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
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Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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