Sharife Cooper would’ve still been a kid back then, in eighth or ninth grade, getting ready for a game in some school gym somewhere in Georgia years ago, when the doors would’ve creaked open and in would’ve walked Bruce Pearl.
Picture it, just as Pearl did this week: At the time, Cooper was still learning the reaches of his ability and still growing into his body in 2015 or 2016, when Pearl first found him and watched him play. At the time, Pearl might have had a little more pepper than salt in his hair, the gears in his mind still turning on his plan to build his new team into a winner.
And, at the time, Auburn basketball was barely on the map.
Auburn signed a star-studded group during college basketball’s early signing period during the last week, led by the five-star Cooper who stands as a game-changing signee for the program — and for Pearl, the head coach insists that the biggest key to putting together this group was not Auburn’s recent success or runs to championships in the last two seasons, but instead the relationships built well before all those nets were cut and the hardware came around.
“The common denominator with this group — and I think with our success over the last couple of years in recruiting — has been that we got there early,” Pearl said Wednesday, discussing his new crop of talent. “It became real fashionable to recruit Sharife Cooper two years ago. But it wasn’t four years ago, when he was very undersized.
“We told you that Jared Harper was going to be worth the price of admission, and you could say that again when it comes to Sharife Cooper.”
That’s heavy praise, and Cooper is worthy of it. Cooper is universally touted as a five-star, top-20 prospect. He put pen to paper and signed with Auburn during the NCAA’s early signing period last week, along with four-star guard Justin Powell from Goshen, Ky., and four-star forward Chris Moore from West Memphis, Ark.
Pearl said he chased Powell around remote gyms out in Kentucky years ago. Pearl isn’t even sure how long Moore had been recruited by his assistant Wes Flanigan before Pearl hired Flanigan.
Of course, in 2016, it had been more than a decade since what was Auburn’s last previous trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2003. Auburn got back to the tournament in 2018, after winning the SEC’s regular-season championship that year before the 2019’s magic run to the SEC Tournament Championship and the Final Four.
“While everybody wants to look at the Final Four or the league championships the last couple years and say that’s the reason, well, it really isn’t,” Pearl said, on how Auburn inked this stacked class. “It’s just good ol’ fashioned hard work, getting in early, grinding and doing your job.
“That’s what I want to give my assistant coaches credit for.”
The early signing period ran from Nov. 13 to Nov. 20. Now, Pearl said the coaches turn to picking up a front-line player when the regular signing period opens April 15, 2020 — or maybe two.
Cooper, Powell and Moore are all expected to enroll in the summer of 2020.
Cooper was named the 2018-19 USA Today National Player of the Year, scoring 28.6 points per game and averaging 8.7 assists per game while leading McEachern High School to a 32-0 record and a state championship in Georgia alongside Auburn freshman Isaac Okoro.
“The first time I saw him, probably over at McEachern, or at a tournament — and he was itty bitty. But he was slippery,” Pearl said, thinking back. “And I looked at him right away and said, ‘There’s the next Jared Harper.’”
Undersized and overlooked at the time, Cooper was the perfect fit for Pearl’s vision for Auburn’s future. Eventually, the big names came calling. Kentucky, Tennessee, UCLA and so many more eventually offered him scholarships.
But Auburn was among the first — and the last standing in his recruitment.
“I remember the family just being very appreciative of the fact that I saw it, too. You know, there was no talking me into it,” Pearl said. “And they stayed really loyal.”
Pearl said that the team’s recent success surely helped “finish the job” in those recruitments and helped get pen to paper to close the deal, but all of them started early, with coaches using a keen eye to find talent before other teams — and that’s what’s built the new future of Auburn basketball.