Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Auburn

Auburn offense

SHARIFE

Well, the last time I wrote a preview, the opposing team’s two best players were ruled out 30 minutes before tipoff, essentially rendering 90% of my offensive preview of said team entirely useless. I’m not mad online! I’ve never been mad online. Anyway, it seems pretty unlikely that —

(checks notes)

Ah, of course. Sharife Cooper, easily the most entertaining and interesting player Auburn has to offer, was in a walking boot on Tuesday for Auburn’s game against Florida and did not play. Predictably, Auburn was blown out when missing the one player on their roster that can take over a game. Cooper’s availability is very much up in the air for a variety of reasons: he’s only played 12 games; he’s almost certainly going to be a first-round pick (if not a lottery pick) in the next NBA Draft; Auburn isn’t going to be playing postseason basketball due to self-imposed sanctions; he has a legitimate ankle injury that needs healing.

All of which goes to say that I am essentially writing two previews here, the first of which is below.

If Sharife Cooper is available to play, the entire complexion of this game changes. Cooper is one of the greatest foul-drawing guards in modern college basketball history, gobbling up an astounding 8 drawn fouls per 40 minutes of play. This is because Cooper is also one of the more entertainingly fearless guards I have ever watched play in the SEC:

I mean, I legitimately cannot get enough of watching him play, which is why I would be really sad if he can’t go. Obviously, it would be massively beneficial for Tennessee if he doesn’t play. While Auburn is only 5-7 (5-6 in SEC play) in the games Cooper has played in, it hasn’t been Cooper’s fault. He’s single-handedly pushed Auburn to wins over Kentucky and Missouri while nearly toppling Alabama in his very first appearance. He has the highest Assist Rate in all of college basketball, meaning when he’s on the floor, 50.6% of all Auburn possessions end in a Cooper assist:

He’s really something else. It takes a lot for me to say this about a player whose shooting numbers are pretty nasty. Cooper’s just 13-for-57 (22.8%) from three and Torvik has him as a sub-50% finisher at the rim (49.5%, so just barely). He’s not a terribly efficient shooter by any means. But my God, who could care when he has the ability to do things like this?

We need Sharife! We deserve Sharife! No other player on the Auburn roster comes even close to matching how important he is to the team. When Cooper is on the court, Auburn’s offense is posting a schedule and luck-adjusted 1.184 PPP, per Hoop-Explorer. That would be good enough for 9th best nationally at the moment. Without Cooper, that number falls a full 13.4 points to 1.05 PPP, which would come out as the 133rd best offense. I think it’s pretty obvious that Auburn needs Cooper like they need air.

That said, Jimmy Dykes called the Florida/Auburn game on Tuesday night and hinted pretty strongly that we’ve probably seen the last of Cooper in an Auburn uniform. I totally get it. Auburn, at most, has three games left to play and none of them are meaningful. Why show back up if you’re Sharife? Maybe, you know, just to be safe, he could take Saturday off. I mean, I’d be sad and all, but I think I’d get over it in 0.001 seconds or so.

But…probably no SHARIFE

So: If Sharife Cooper is not available to play, Auburn’s main scoring option will be Allen Flanigan, who you can see hitting a three in the GIF above. Flanigan isn’t anywhere near Cooper’s usage rate, but he’s the next guy up and is the second-best passer on the team as a 6’6” guard that can play 1 through 3 pretty well. Flanigan was an absolute mess against Florida on Tuesday – 6 points, 7 turnovers, 4 fouls – but I’m willing to forgive him. I would be very sad if my friend Sharife wasn’t there to help, too.

So Tennessee’s probably got to hone in on stopping Flanigan for this one. Thanks to his size, he’s an excellent finisher and has gotten more aggressive in getting to the rim at his second year at Auburn. The Tigers largely don’t take threes, so Tennessee is likely going to have to take their chances in guarding Flanigan one-on-one and making him score through contact.

Beyond Flanigan, there’s a laundry list of role players and shooters that I’ll highlight in the rotational report below. A player of serious interest, if I had to select just one, is Jaylin Williams. Williams is also a sophomore, and as a 6’8” power forward, he’s proven himself as a solid rim protector on one end and a legitimate threat out to 25+ feet on the other.

Tennessee’s going to be stretched out like pizza dough in this one simply by way of the system Bruce Pearl coaches. It’s speed, layups, and threes, and if you make mistakes, so be it – there’s 71 other possessions to choose from each game. Might as well have fun with it. The task is going to be much easier if Cooper is unavailable, though.

Here’s a quick scout of Auburn’s rotation. Only players who receive at least 10 minutes per game in SEC play are considered. The first five players are projected starters. Positions in parentheses are from Bart Torvik’s algorithm.

  • #22 Allen Flanigan (wing G). Flanigan will start this game regardless of Cooper’s availability. He’s a serious threat at the rim (48-for-72), is a 34% three-point shooter, but has had some really bad turnover issues in conference play (29.3% TO%). Might wanna get that fixed. Only player who gets to the rim nearly as frequently as Cooper does.
  • #1 Jamal Johnson (combo G). Johnson has been Auburn’s most efficient deep shooter in conference play (35-for-92, or 38%), but has been atrocious on twos (13-for-40) and is a really bad on-ball defender. Doesn’t turn the ball over ever, though.
  • #35 Devan Cambridge (wing G). Cambridge is skilled both at the rim and from deep and takes very few non-rim twos, which is quite noble. Probably the second-best deep shooter behind Johnson.
  • #23 Jaylin Williams (stretch 4). Williams is an excellent scorer at the rim and is a talented deep shooter, which I realize could simply be called “an Auburn player.” Along with JT Thor, has been good at denying opponent attempts at the rim.
  • #10 JT Thor (stretch 4). Thor completes the starting lineup at 6’10”, meaning, yes, Auburn has a frontcourt with 33 combined made threes in SEC play and both players more than willing to shoot from deep. Has to be nice. Thor is a fine rebounder, though it puzzles me that he doesn’t get more offensive rebounds with his size.
  • #44 Dylan Cardwell (center). Former Tennessee target. Cardwell is fantastic at the rim but very much Not A Shooter. Great rebounder, but has committed a turnover on 34.4% of his SEC possessions.
  • #5 Chris Moore (stretch 4). Moore doesn’t actually crack ten minutes a game, but he’s right on the threshold, so I let him in. 5-for-9 from three, but has a Usage Rate of 10.7% and commits lots of turnovers.
  • #2 Sharife Cooper (maybe) (pure PG). We’ll see on this front, but it’s pretty obvious that if Sharife plays, the entire game changes. You can read about why this is so above.

NEXT PAGE: Here’s how I can tell who reads these posts: if you see this, please reply to my @statsbywill Twitter account with the phrase “ham sanitizer.” You need no explanation; this is more of a measurement of sorts.

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