If you rewind to last season you’ll remember the Gators had arguably their best game of the season against the Auburn Tigers who were at the time ranked #4 in the country. Playing Omar Payne next to Kerry Blackshear the Gators pounded the offensive glass relentlessly and blew out the Tigers by a score of 69-47.
They’ll be looking for similar results on Tuesday as the Gators see the Tigers for the first and only time this season. Auburn’s administration and head coach Bruce Pearl decided to self impose a postseason ban this year as rumors swirl around the program that they were involved in some nefarious ways of acquiring players.
Right now Auburn sits at 11-12 on the season and 5-9 in the SEC. They’ve had some tough losses, falling to UCF, Texas A&M, and Georgia, and they don’t have anywhere near the good wins to make up for. Technically speaking their best win was a neutral site victory over Memphis, a team currently outside the NCAA Tournament picture.
This was always set to be a rebuilding year for the Tigers who graduated some solid players a year ago and were bringing in one of the youngest teams in the country this year. What made things even tougher for them was the delayed ruling on the eligibility of superstar point guard Sharife Cooper who wasn’t able to play until January 9th.
Of course, when he joined the team, everything changed.
Cooper is currently having an incredible run averaging 20 points and 8 assists on the season. What he’s doing is nothing short of a Tre Young or Buddy Hield type run, putting his team on his back and putting up ridiculous numbers.
Standing at 6’1”, well, that’s what he’s listed at, but you’ll see he’s much shorter, you might not think a lot of the diminutive guard but once he gets the basketball he commands all the attention. You’d be hard pressed to find many guards in the country that can handle the ball better than Cooper and quite frankly, you might not find one who is a better live dribble passer. Despite being the center of every opposing team’s scouting report and the fact he is regularly facing traps and double teams he has continued to be productive and keeps piling on points and assists.
This was especially proven when Auburn played Baylor in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Bears are arguably the best team in the country with arguably the best defense and they put all their might towards slowing Cooper down. He still was able to get 15 points and 5 assists on the road.
Playing Alabama, also one of the best defensive teams in the country, in his first collegiate basketball game midway through the season after hardly practicing, Cooper had 26 points and 9 assists.
Of course, when he has played poor defensive teams, he has had absolute field days. He hung 28 points and 12 assists on Georgia, 15 points and 14 assists on Ole Miss, and 26 points and 2 assists on LSU, showing he’s ready to give anyone in the SEC work.
For Florida, as has been the case with every team playing Auburn, their number one schematic goal will be how they slow Cooper down. This is especially concerning for the Gators because their biggest issue this season has been stopping talented guards from getting loose. Scotty Pippen Jr, Cam Thomas, AJ Lawson, and Sahvir Wheeler have had career nights against Florida this season without a whole lot of resistance.
The player Sharife Cooper most plays like out of that group is Sahvir Wheeler from Georgia who the Gators just played. Playing him recently might be a good thing on one hand for the Gators because they just saw a talented undersized guard who is an elite passer, but on the other hand Florida let Wheeler go for 27 points and 4 assists and quite honestly, Sharife Cooper is another step up better than Wheeler.
An interesting player who could enter the mix to guard Cooper is Ques Glover. Glover just had arguably his best game as a Gator against Georgia and he was one of the only players alongside Tre Mann to have any success keeping Wheeler out of the paint. Glover is a similar size to Wheeler which made it a bit of a natural matchup and that will be the same scenario with Cooper. Tyree Appleby, Noah Locke, and Scottie Lewis were all helpless trying to keep their feet moving with Wheeler and it’s hard to imagine anything being different with the similar or even better Cooper. Glover might be a viable option to guard him, so watch out for that on Tuesday.
Something that might make it easier to keep Glover on the floor is the fact that Auburn barely posts up and doesn’t like to get out of the flow of their offense to attack switches. They do play a big frontcourt, featuring a fantastic 6’10” freshman named JT Thor and a thick 6’8”, 230 pound athlete in Jaylin Williams, but Thor is more of a roll threat and Williams is a stretch big so neither are looking to back down smaller players.
Instead of playing through the post Auburn is all about gap creation for their guards to get drives. We have seen this for years under Bruce Pearl as Auburn has continually had outstanding guards that can get buckets and a large part of that is their dribble drive offense where players punch gaps before giving up a dribble handoff to the second guard to attack what is now a bigger gap. It’s difficult to defend when the offense has multiple talented scoring guards and Auburn has just that.
Sharife Cooper is going to get all the hype, and rightfully so, but Allen Flanigan is also a supremely talented scorer who deserves defensive attention. A 6’6” guard he has great size and when he gets into the paint he’s able to finish over just about anyone.
One thing that’s interesting about Auburn’s offense is that they shoot a ton of threes even though they don’t shoot them efficiently. They’re a below average three-point percentage team at 33.3% but 45% of their total shots come from behind the arc. Even when they’re not making them they’re going to continue to hoist and when they shoot they pursue the offensive rebound relentlessly. Their big and athletic frontcourt gives them an advantage over most teams and they’re willing to gamble on opposing teams having numbers in transition if it means they can send more players to the glass.
Circling back to Sharife Cooper, one of the things that is incredible about him as a player is the fact that he’s a dismal three-point shooter hitting on 23% of his attempts on the season. So, he’s an undersized guard that isn’t a threat to shoot but defenses still can’t stop him from getting into the paint and making plays. It’s incredible to watch and seeing him will be a treat on Tuesday for those who are yet to see him play.
The Gators definitely have a few points to focus on for this game. Stopping Sharife Cooper and trying to take care of the glass will be the keys of the scout, but Florida also has plenty they need to clean up on their own end. The Gators have had three straight games where their offense has been poor, culminating with a really disjointed performance against Georgia. They’re running more pick and rolls than just about anyone in the country and while that was effective in the early season teams have figured out how to guard it and Florida hasn’t been able to adapt.
Bruce Pearl has had plenty of off court issues as a coach, some of which could give him major problems soon and is why Auburn as a program is trying to get ahead of it with the self imposed postseason ban this season.
Say what you will about his off court behavior, but when it comes to coaching basketball he is one of the nation’s best. Both offensively and defensively he is one of the best tacticians out there, and Auburn is one of the best scouting teams in the league. For years they have been calling out Florida’s offensive sets and baseline out of bounds plays and not allowing the Gators to run them, and considering their diligent scouting in the past it’s almost certain they’ll see the issues that Florida has had offensively recently and know just what to do to frustrate them further.
This game is going to be a challenge for the players on the floor and the coaching staff on the sidelines, so Tuesday could get very interesting.