The curious case of Bruce Pearl and Georgia basketball talent

Auburn guard Sharife Cooper (2) celebrates a Missouri turnover in the final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn guard Sharife Cooper (2) celebrates a Missouri turnover in the final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Auburn, Ala.

Credit: AP Photo/Julie Bennett

Credit: AP Photo/Julie Bennett

ATHENS — Auburn will have the best player on the floor Tuesday night when it plays host to Georgia in men’s basketball (7 p.m., SECN). And that player — point guard Sharife Cooper — hails from McEachern High in Powder Springs.

In fact, Cooper is one of five very good Auburn players from Georgia, three of them McEachern graduates. Babatunde Akingbola, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound sophomore forward, and Dylan Cardwell, a 6-11, 250-pound freshman, also are from McEachern.

JT Thor, a 6-10 forward averaging 9.3 points and 4.4 rebounds, graduated from Norcross High. Jaylin Williams (a 6-8, 230-pound graduate of Brantley County High) is averaging 10.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

But Cooper not only is the best player at Auburn; he’s arguably the most valuable player in the SEC. Coming into the Georgia game, he’s averaging 21.3 points, 8.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound guard is making a good case to be named SEC freshman of the year.

“He’s our quarterback,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said of Cooper. “We just saw four great quarterbacks play in the AFC and NFC championships and I don’t think any of those teams are there without their quarterback. So, obviously, he makes a huge difference for us.”

Cooper certainly made a difference for Auburn the last time it played Georgia. In only his second game for the Tigers — he was deemed ineligible by the NCAA until Jan. 9 — Cooper scored 28 points in 34 minutes and added 12 assists and two steals as the Tigers throttled the Bulldogs 95-77 on Jan. 13 at Stegeman Coliseum.

Auburn is 4-3 since Cooper was activated, but two of those losses came to then-No. 6 Alabama in Cooper’s first game and to No. 2-ranked Baylor this past Saturday. The other one was a two-point loss on the road at Arkansas.

Ever since witnessing Cooper’s dominating performance in Athens, Georgia fans have wondered why Cooper is playing for Auburn and not for the home-state Bulldogs. They can rest assured, it was not for lack of trying.

“Georgia very actively recruited Sharife; Coach Crean did a good job,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson said Monday. “He was here a lot, talked to him a lot, had him over there. I think what it boiled down to was my guys had always talked about how they all wanted to play together. When Akingbola and Isaac (Okoro) went to Auburn, I think that swayed Sharife quite a bit.”

Crean agreed. In fact, he downplayed Georgia’s level of pursuit.

“We were never really involved with him other than some contact and evaluation,” Crean said through a spokesperson Monday. “With all the connections to Auburn, we always felt he was going to Auburn.”

Georgia guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) set sets up the offense against Ole Miss Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)
Georgia guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) set sets up the offense against Ole Miss Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: UGA Sports

Credit: UGA Sports

Background is important here. Georgia already had a point guard in Sahvir Wheeler, a sophomore who is currently fourth in the nation in assists per game (7.4). The Bulldogs also signed 4-star guard K.D. Johnson of Southwest DeKalb out of Virginia’s Hargrave Prep. But they would’ve taken Cooper in a snap.

And Auburn’s ties were strong. Akingbola and Okoro played with Cooper on McEachern’s undefeated state championship team of 2019, along with Cardwell. Cooper’s father, Omar Cooper, coached all of them on the Athletes of Tomorrow AAU team.

Okoro, a 6-5 guard, was also a 5-star prospect. He averaged 12.8 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Tigers last year but followed Georgia’s Anthony Edwards as a “one-and-done” freshman. He was selected with the fifth pick of the 2020 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

According to Thompson, Okoro is central to establishing the pipeline from McEachern to Auburn. He credits Pearl’s dogged recruiting efforts for that.

“Bruce was here all the time,” said Thompson, who will retire after this season following a 39-year-career in high school coaching and teaching. “He was the first one to recruit Isaac. He went to Argentina to see Isaac play when Isaac was on the USA team and he was the only one to do that. That’s what sold Isaac on Auburn. He was the only one down there watching games. I know that went a long way toward convincing Isaac that’s where he needed to be.”

The truth is, Pearl’s recruitment of the state of Georgia has probably been more damaging to UGA basketball than any other single coach. And it’s a big reason the Tigers have won six of the last seven games in the series.

Going back to when he was at Tennessee – where he was fired amid an NCAA investigation and left under a three-year, show-cause order – Pearl has long raided the Peach State for basketball talent. McEachern’s Trae Golden was at the center of Pearl’s controversy up on Rocky Top.

And Pearl’s tenure at Auburn hasn’t been without issue. In November, the Tigers self-imposed a postseason ban this season as part of a federal investigation into bribery charges brought against former assistant coach Chuck Person. The decision was made, Auburn officials stated, “in light of the ongoing matter that surfaced in fall 2017.”

Person, former Auburn star who joined Pearl’s staff as an assistant coach in 2014, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to steer players to a financial adviser and funneling money to players’ families. The FBI alleged that Person provided $11,000 to one player’s family and $7,500 to another.

However, to date, Auburn has never shared publicly the contents of the Notice of Allegations it reportedly received from the NCAA, despite fielding numerous open-records requests.

Pearl’s dicey history with the NCAA precedes his time at Tennessee. The accusations have been many; but the convictions few.

“I don’t know anything for myself, but I’ve heard all the rumors and things on social media,” Thompson said Pearl’s recruiting tactics. “He skirts that line about as good as anybody does.”

The bottom line, Pearl is still coaching and still signing some of Georgia’s best players, many of them from Greater Atlanta. In the November early-signing period, Auburn inked Jabari Smith, a 6-10 forward from Sandy Creek High in Tyrone and another 5-star prospect. The Bulldogs, in dire need of an athletic big man, finished second in that pursuit.

Meanwhile, Georgia has not been totally shut out of McEachern. The Bulldogs are currently holding a commitment from Cameron McDowell, a 6-5 guard from McEachern who holds a 3-star recruiting rating in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. Thompson said McDowell’s commitment to UGA is “solid.”

“He’s a good one,” he said. “I think he’s going to be able to help them.”

Thompson believes Crean is doing a good job at Georgia and eventually will get the program turned around.

“I think he’s helped the recruiting situation at Georgia,” Thompson said. “I think he’s out and about and recruiting the best kids in the state a little bit more than the past coaches there. Since I’ve been coaching – and that’s been a long time – he’s one of the better choices Georgia has ever made from a basketball standpoint, in my opinion. Getting Anthony Edwards in there was huge; and he’s going to continue to get some good kids in there. It’s just a matter of getting all those kids heading in one direction.”

Don’t expect Pearl to provide any pointers.

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