Bruce Pearl has another rebuilding job of sorts at Auburn as the Tigers must replace virtually all their key players after the best three-year run in program histor y.
And while Pearl will have to do it without possible NBA lottery pick Isaac Okoro, this time he starts the rebuilding process with a better foundation and assemblage of talent.
Pearl will lead the youngest team in his quarter century as a head coach built around a top-10 recruiting class led by 5-star point guard Sharife Cooper as its foundation.
“I like our talent,” Pearl said. “We’ve got just a ton of learning, a ton of catching up to do, and we’re going to have to get better throughout the season if we’re going to be a competitive team this year, (if) we’re going to be an NCAA Tournament team this year.”
And that’s where the bar has been set over the last three seasons, when Auburn has won 81 games and a Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championship and made its first Final Four. The Tigers were shoo-ins for a third straight NCAA Tournament since ending a 15-year drought, but then the postseason was cancelled because of COVID-19.
It’s all rarefied air for a once-downtrodden program.
But none of the scholarship players from that Final Four team two years ago are still around.
The Tigers have five freshmen and five sophomores among their 12 scholarship players. But that group is led by Cooper, a Top 25 national recruit.
The high-scoring 6-foot-1,180-pound point guard takes over for J’Von McCormick. Fellow freshman JT Thor was another prized recruit and brings height to the rotation at 6-10, 205 pounds.
Kentucky and Auburn are the only two SEC teams that don’t return a player who averaged at least 5.0 points per games.
The top returning scorers are sophomore Devan Cambridge (4.2 points) and Memphis transfer Jamal Johnson (3.5). Besides, the versatile star Okoro and McCormick, Auburn also must replace players like leading scorer Samir Doughty and big man Austin Wiley.
Hardly known for its basketball tradition, Auburn joins blue bloods Duke, Kansas and Kentucky as the only teams to win 25 games in each of the past three years.
“That’s tall timber. That’s great company,” Pearl said. “Certainly, that’s something that we’ve worked really hard to acquire.”
Pearl has called Cooper a “unique and special playmaker and scorer.” Auburn will need him to step into a big role. Cooper is the highest rated signee in Auburn history, coming in ranked as high as the No. 19 recruit nationally. Cooper averaged 30.6 points, 7.8 assists and 3.6 steals as a senior at McEachern High School in Georgia.
Pearl compares him to former Auburn star point guard Jared Harper based largely on size and potential, but said he is better at scoring around the basket and as an interior passer.
“I will say he is ahead of Jared as a freshman, but he is not Jared Harper yet, because we remember Jared as a junior,” Pearl said.
Cambridge showed he could score — 26 points against South Carolina, seven 3-pointers against LSU — at times, but didn’t do it consistently as a freshman.
“I know I’m going to have a lot more shot attempts,” Cambridge said. “This year will be a whole different mindset. I’ve got to come into it to just be ready to shoot.”
Besides Cambridge, Auburn could need his fellow sophomores like Jaylin Williams and Allen Flanigan to play bigger roles. Both played limited minutes last season.
Williams only saw action in 14 games, but did have his role increase late in the season.
Auburn will face Baylor on Jan. 30 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Tigers open SEC play Dec. 30 by hosting Arkansas. Kentucky and Tennessee visit Auburn Arena.
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