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Florida vs. Auburn, Game Thread: Can the Gators hang with Sharife Cooper?

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Auburn’s sensational freshman point guard makes the Tigers go. Can he be stopped?

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team got back to winning ways against Georgia on Saturday, albeit in a game that featured a lot of bricks from the Bulldogs. Whether they can turn that win into the beginning of a streak will likely depend on how well they contain Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN or ESPN+).

Cooper, a five-star recruit whose collegiate career — assuredly a one-year stint on the Plains — was delayed by NCAA issues, has been Auburn’s linchpin and lodestar since arriving in Bruce Pearl’s lineup. He uses 34 percent of the Tigers’ possessions with him on the floor, good for sixth nationally in that regard, and shoots on about 30 percent of those — but he’s also first nationally in Assist Rate. When Cooper, who has drawn Chris Paul comparisons, is on the floor, he’s orchestrating Auburn’s offense; when he’s doing so by creating shots for others or getting to the line (he’s eighth in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, naturally, and has made 82.5 percent of his free throws), he’s very efficient.

But when Cooper shoots and isn’t fouled, he’s mortal, making a good but not great 46 percent of his two and an outright miserable 22.5 percent of his threes. When he can mostly avoid turnovers, Auburn wins; when he doesn’t, it’s a dicier proposition, as the Tigers have gone 3-0 when Cooper plays and commits three or fewer, but just 2-7 when he’s coughed up four or more. And his playmaking is maybe slightly more important than his scoring: He had 26 points and just two assists in LSU’s stomping of Auburn last Saturday, and averaged 4.5 assists in losses to Baylor and Arkansas; two of the three double-digit assist performances on Cooper’s game log, however, are Auburn’s only double-digit wins since SEC play began.

It suffices to say that as Cooper goes, so does Auburn. And Florida will likely struggle to some degree to slow him down, unless Tre Mann can avoid the foul trouble that has limited him some in recent games or Tyree Appleby can apply his hounding style effectively.

But Florida also shouldn’t find it that difficult to score on Auburn, which just gave up 104 in that loss to LSU and is basically good at generating blocks and nothing else on defense. Non-Cooper Tigers have also been generally casual with the ball, which is a recipe for Florida feasting on steals, and while Auburn is quite good at jacking up threes — a problem for the Gators’ defense, which can be too quick to concede them at times — the Tigers aren’t particularly accurate from distance.

Auburn hasn’t been a great team in 2020-21, now two years removed from its magical Final Four trip in 2019, and Bruce Pearl hasn’t had much luck against Mike White. If Florida can hang with Cooper instead of letting him Geppeto the night’s proceedings, it has a good chance at a road victory.