What a weird feeling it is to be writing this article.
First, COVID came in and took the postseason of 2020 away from us. Despite a rocky run in SEC play, this team looked like it was coming together. Isaac Okoro was healthy again, Austin J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty had fully settled into their roles replacing the best guard combo in Auburn history, and Jaylin Williams was in the midst of a breakout final month of the season. Then, in the matter of a few days, it was over. The large group of seniors that helped support the Final Four run wouldn’t get a chance to make March their own. Isaac Okoro, on his way to becoming an NBA draft pick in a few months time, never got to play on college basketball’s biggest stages.
Then, COVID delayed the season. What seemed like an impossibility in March became a reality as the entire sports calendar suffered a shift. But, it was all going to be okay. A few weeks was worth it to get it right.
What’s that? The NCAA is coming in to drop the hammer on Auburn? We’re self-imposing a postseason ban? Well… at least this is a rebuilding roster anyways. And hey, it looks like there’s a 50/50 shot the sport doesn’t field a postseason this year anyways. I can feel good about Auburn being proactive and protecting themselves (hopefully) from further punishment. And hey, we’re bringing in the best recruit we’ve ever signed, this can still be a fun year to ruin everyone’s lives.
Sources to ESPN: Auburn five-star freshman Sharife Cooper hasn't practiced in weeks and is exploring potential options overseas while he awaits the findings of an NCAA investigation into his eligibility.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) November 23, 2020
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME WITH THIS. BURN 2020 TO THE GROUND, AND THE NCAA WITH IT.
So now what? We’re less than 48 hours from beginning the season. We don’t know if Sharife Cooper is eligible, and with COVID cases rising nationwide, assuming any games more than a day or two in advance is a fool’s errand.
But, we’ll press on. This is still likely the most talented Auburn roster in my life time, or at least in the last 20 years. There’s immense upside at every position, even if it’s coupled with a crippling lack of experience. With no postseason to look to, this team and this fanbase and live every game like it’s the National Championship. No worrying about seeding, or resumes, or anything else. Just WINS.
Let’s see just what this roster has in store for us.
Sharife Cooper (6’1”, 180 lbs, Fr., #2) - We’ve been hyping this kid up for years. Cooper committed to Auburn back in September of 2019, but had been tied to the program since he received his first college offer from Bruce Pearl way back in 2016.
Although a bit undersized for an SEC point guard, Cooper is an absurd playmaker, and used his athleticism in high school to put both he and his teammates in position for easy buckets. As a junior, Cooper was the Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year, as he averaged 27.2 points per game, 8.1 assists per game, and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Cooper is an unquestioned leader at the point, as he lead his AAU team AOT in points, assists, steals, free throw attempts as a junior. Mind you, that AOT team two years ago included future top 5 NBA Draft pick Isaac Okoro, #5 national recruit in the 2020 class and Kentucky signee BJ Boston, 3* guard in the 2019 class and SMU signee Charles Smith IV, and 3* Auburn center Babatunde Akingbola. Cooper has had D1 talent around him for years now, and he’s shown he can lead it effectively.
There is question about his defense, and it’s fair. While he was able to rely on his athleticism to stay with opponents in high school, that likely won’t translate well to college. Like so many freshmen, though, we won’t really know how he’ll perform until we see him in action against teams with top end college talent.
While we’re still unsure about his eligibility, it’s safe to say if he can play, he will start. Cooper is on his way to becoming an NBA draft pick in the next few years - hopefully he will get to prepare for that moment in an Auburn uniform.
Allen Flanigan (6’6”, 215 lbs, So., #22) - One of the less heralded recruits in last year’s star studded class, Flanigan earned a role as Isaac Okoro’s primary backup last season, and by no means was it a case of “Daddy Ball”. I, along with a large contingent of the fanbase, thought that when Bruce Pearl told the media he would likely only play nine guys last season, Flanigan was surely one of those on the outside looking in.
And yet, when the season tipped off, Flanigan was right there in the rotation. While his offensive game left plenty to be desired, the second-generation Tiger was a steady hand on defense, particularly when Okoro missed some time later in the season. He was fourth on the team in rebound% last season, showing out often as a someone willing to get to the glass and out-physical opponents. He will likely be the primary on-ball defender similar to Okoro last season, and although it certainly isn’t fair to expect him to replicate #23’s success, Flanigan showed he’s someone the coaching staff can rely on when push comes to shove.
As mentioned, his offense was a bit of a mess last year, but it was to be expected. Flanigan shot just 14.3% from deep, and while he was a respectable 53% from two, he’s going to have to show some sort of range this season for other defenses to respect him as a scoring threat. I’d like to see that three point% come up to at least 28%, same as Anfernee McLemore last year. Flanigan was also turnover prone last season, leading the team’s regulars in turnover% at 17.8%.
While it’s no guarantee Flanigan is the starter at the two-guard spot, I’m betting with all of the other uncertainty, the coaching staff will opt for a player they trust here.
Devan Cambridge (6’6”, 215 lbs, So., #35) - If Flanigan was the cool, steady hand that the coaches knew wouldn’t cost them a game last year, Cambridge was the towering inferno that burned everything to the ground. Sometimes it was through bone-headed turnovers or ill-advised shots that drug Auburn down into the bad side of a run, and sometimes it was going seven of ten from deep to rally Auburn past then-first place LSU.
Cambridge is being looked at nationally as a potential breakout candidate this season, and it’s easy to see why. The sophomore is Auburn’s leading returning scorer, and will likely be a focal point of Bruce Pearl’s patented up-tempo, three-point barrage offense. While he shot a modest 34% from three last year, Cambridge showed he can go on Bryce Brown-esque hot streaks where he can shoot an opposing team out of the gym.
What he has that few other guards with his offensive profile have is an insane physical package to go with it. Cambridge is a lean 6’6”, and he can run (or overrun) with anyone on the court. Cambridge is a highlight reel waiting to happen, with incredible ability to score in transition and run down opposing scorers alike. While he will need to reign it in a bit as a starter to avoid foul trouble, Cambridge might be the safest bet on this team to put up a thirty-point effort.
Cambridge and Flanigan will likely be the two wings with the most minutes this season, even if they rotate positions some to accommodate different lineups the coaching staff wants to try out. If one doesn’t start, I still suspect they will both see 25+ minutes per game.
Tyrell Jones (6’1”, 195 lbs, So., #0) - Nicknamed Turbo, the lightning quick point guard from Chicago was not a part of the main rotation last season on the Plains. He will need to acclimate quickly if Cooper is not cleared, though, as he is the likely next-man-up at the point.
It’s tough to take any meaningful conclusions out of Jones’s 38 minutes of mop-up duty last season, but they did show a guard who would be able to contribute in more ways than just scoring. While he was just 3/12 from the floor, he did contribute 10 rebounds, six assists, and four steals, which (with no minimum minute requirement) makes him the returning leader in each of those three non-scoring categories.
While he may not be ready to be a key cog in Auburn’s scoring output, Jones has a shot to be an above average point guard in the SEC with more consistent playing time.
Justin Powell (6’6”, 205 lbs, Fr., #24) - It’s not often Auburn is going to be able to go outside of its usual recruiting footprint and grab the number one player in the state, particularly when that state (Kentucky) is in the heartland of high school basketball talent. Nevertheless, Steven Pearl was able to recruit this kid down to Auburn, and despite a knee injury effectively eliminating his senior season and his junior year being lost to transferring schools, the chatter is that Powell could be in line for some serious playing time as a freshman. Powell is a textbook 3-and-D player who could thrive in Bruce Pearl’s system, and he has shown he ability to play both point guard and off-ball in high school and preseason camp. He may be the guy to be lost in the shuffle if Cooper is indeed eligible this season, but if not, he could definitely outplay his 3* rating early on in his career.
Jamal Johnson (6’4”, 195 lbs, RJr, #1) - What a career Jamal Johnson has had. High school teammates with Austin Wiley at Spain Park, Johnson was a highly sought-after recruit himself, tabbed as the #9 combo guard in the country in the 2017 class. Johnson went to Memphis to play for former Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith, but when Smith was fired after just two seasons, Johnson decided to make his leave as well.
After sitting out the 2018-19 season at Auburn as a transfer, Johnson was tabbed as the next great three point shooter off the bench for Auburn. While he had some success shooting the ball (he finished the season leading the team with a 38.6% clip), he struggled in mightily in conference play. His shooting slipped, leading to a loss of minutes (13.4 minutes per game in non-conference down to 9.6 in SEC play), and the emergence of Devan Cambridge and Allen Flanigan at the week ate into the veteran’s playing time. Johnson will look to right the ship this year, and it’s not inconceivable that he’s worked his way up to being in the primary rotation, but he will certainly need to play better than he did down the stretch last year.