Auburn fresh example for teams to win SEC tourney hard way

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl expects high-profile recruits to come to Auburn ahead of next season. [WADE PAYNE/ASSOCIATED PRESS]

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series looking ahead to Auburn's 2020-21 basketball season. Yesterday, we looked at the potential of the Tigers' returning players.

AUBURN — A player of Jalen Green’s caliber probably would not have even considered playing basketball for Auburn five years ago.

The five-star shooting guard out of Fresno, California, is the No. 3-ranked recruit nationally in the 2020 class, according to 247Sports' composite ranking. If the NBA didn’t require players to be at least one year removed from high school before entering the draft, he would probably be a top-five pick this summer.

However, things have changed dramatically for Auburn basketball. The Tigers suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons from 2010-16 and 14 consecutive seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance from 2004-17.

It didn’t sign the first five-star recruit in program history, No. 22-ranked Mustapha Heron, until 2016.

Now, the Tigers are coming off their fourth consecutive winning season, the latest being cut short. They won two conference titles during that stretch and went to the Final Four for the first time in program history last year.

They signed the highest-rated recruit in program history (five-star point guard Sharife Cooper) in November.

What Bruce Pearl and his staff have accomplished in a short time is not lost on recruits. Green isn’t just considering Auburn; Auburn is considered perhaps the favorite to land Green. And he’s not the only player the Tigers are looking to add to their 2020-21 roster.

“We have a tremendous opportunity for some impact players,” Pearl said on a teleconference with reporters last week. “We feel like we’re in a great position, but they’ve obviously got to play it out.”

There might not be any team in the country losing more than the Tigers, who counted five seniors among their top six scorers this past season. If Okoro decides to leave with them, the team would have to replace 78.4% of its minutes played and 84.1% of its scoring.

The returning cast of Babatunde Akingbola, Devan Cambridge, Allen Flanigan, Javon Franklin, Jamal Johnson, Tyrell Jones and Jaylin Williams brings tantalizing athletic potential but very little in the way of experience — they averaged just 12.3 points per game combined in their first seasons playing on the Plains, none will be older than a junior next year, and seven players does not a rotation make.

But reinforcements are on the way. Cooper is one of three players Auburn has signed in an 18th-ranked 2020 recruiting class, along with three-star Goshen, Kentucky, shooting guard Justin Powell and three-star West Memphis, Arkansas, power forward Chris Moore.

Pearl described Powell, who missed part of his senior season with a groin injury, as a “great shooter” with the ability to become a complete player. Moore was named the Player of the Year in Arkansas after averaging 18.7 points and 16.3 rebounds per game during his team’s run to the Class 5A state championship game.

“Chris is a hard-playing, physical, hard-working, great teammate player,” Pearl said. “A great kid and is going to be a real fit for us someplace. He’s position-less. He can move around quite a bit.”

Cooper, though, is the jewel of Auburn’s 2020 class so far. Not only was the No. 19-ranked recruit in the country teammates with Okoro on the McEachern High squad that went 32-0 and won a state championship a season ago; he was named Gatorade Georgia Boys Basketball Player of the Year after averaging 27.2 points, 8.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 steals per game.

With J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty both moving on, it seems likely that the 6-foot Powder Springs, Georgia, native will immediately step into the starting point guard role the way Jared Harper once did as a freshman.

“He could have gone anywhere and been the point guard,” Pearl said of Cooper. “He’s special, he’s unique, he’s rare. A great competitor. All he wants to do is win. Makes everybody else around him better.”

Green would make for an exceptional backcourt running mate. The 6-foot-5 guard is an NBA-level scorer who averaged 31.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and five assists per game as a senior on a Pacific Prep team that went 31-3.

Auburn hasn’t secured his services yet — he plans to announce his decision around April 15 — but the national scouts for both 247Sports and Rivals believe Green will choose Auburn over Memphis or playing professionally overseas for a year.

“Coach Pearl is a great coach and he’s really close to the family,” Green told Sports Illustrated earlier this week. “We made a bond pretty early and he’s another one that really believes in me. He always tells me that he has never had a player like me. I know he’d take care of me there.”

The Tigers are also still in the running for five-star Austin, Texas, power forward Greg Brown (who plans to choose between Auburn, Kentucky, Memphis, Michigan and hometown Texas on April 24) and four-star Roselle, New Jersey, center Cliff Omoruyi (who plans to choose between Auburn, Arizona State and Rutgers on Sunday), and have been in contact with a number of transfer targets (though most will have to sit out next season).

Pearl and his staff aren’t allowed to host or visit recruits through at least April 15 as part as the shutdown related to COVID-19, but they are allowed to work the phones.

The Tigers are going to be young and inexperienced next season, even if Okoro does surprise everyone and return for his sophomore year. But they still have a chance to be extremely talented, especially if they can close strong on the recruiting trail.

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