Before Auburn’s 90-71 waxing of rival Alabama on Feb. 21, Tigers legend Charles Barkley made it known who his favorite player on Auburn’s best team in nearly 20 years is.
In a pregame interview with 247 Sports, Barkley called Auburn sophomore point guard Jared Harper the “little general” of the “greatest season in Auburn history.”
Little in stature, but certainly not playing capability, the 5-foot-10 Harper serves as the offensive maestro for the No. 1 squad in the SEC.
The Mableton, Georgia product is second in the SEC in assists at 5.7 per game, behind only Florida’s Chris Chiozza (6.2), who dropped a season-high 12 dimes on the Tigers over the weekend.
Harper’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6 is also second in the league to the senior Chiozza’s 3.2.
It's (not) personal
Harper shares the top 20 of both the assist and scoring (No. 19 in PPG) categories of the SEC with some of the biggest stars in college basketball, including LSU’s Tremont Waters, Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Arkansas’ Daryl Macon and Alabama’s Collin Sexton, all of whom can find their names consistently tossed around in NBA mock drafts.
In head-to-head matchups, Harper has outshined them all.
In Auburn’s home contest against LSU in late January, Waters was shut down in his worst game of the year. The freshman guard tallied a career-low in points (four), his season-high to that point in turnovers (six) and his only zero-assist game of the season.
Against Auburn, Gilgeous-Alexander was held to single digits at nine points, as well as a trio of turnovers. Harper dropped 18 points and seven assists in a 10-point victory.
In the Tigers’ second SEC game of the year, Macon scored 10 points on 0-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. Harper dropped 14 points and eight assists in an 11-point victory.
The biggest point guard spotlight shone on Auburn’s win over the Crimson Tide just a week ago.
Sexton didn’t play in Alabama’s win over Auburn earlier in the season due to injury, so it was the first collegiate matchup of Harper vs. Sexton, a battle of high school teammates from Pebblebrook High in Mableton. The lottery pick vs. the little general.
While Harper was directing the SEC-leading Tigers to a rout of their bitter rival, his old friend wasn’t on his mind.
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“I just want to come out every game and prove that I’m one of the best guards in the country,” Harper said after the win. “It doesn’t matter who the matchup is. I come out every game to prove to everybody what I’m capable of doing.”
Sexton did put on a show however, leading all scorers with 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting, but committed his second-most turnovers of the season with five. Harper dropped 21 points and six assists in a 19-point victory.
Follow his lead
As Harper goes, Auburn has gone this season. This pays major dividends on a good night for the point guard, but the Tigers have been made to pay when Harper’s game is off.
“I don't know of many football teams that win big games without their quarterback playing well,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said Monday, a day before Auburn’s trip to Fayetteville to play Arkansas. “He's our quarterback. If Jared plays well, we've got a chance to win. If Jared doesn't play well, we don't. That's not putting too much pressure on the young man, that's the position he plays. He's the quarterback."
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No. 14 Auburn has lost two of its last three, and in both defeats, Harper struggled tremendously, which hasn’t paired well with leading scorer Bryce Brown’s 24 percent mark from the floor on 10-of-41 field goals in that span.
At South Carolina, Harper coughed up a career-high nine turnovers in the loss and shot only 2-of-8 from the floor. At Florida, he shot 3-of-10.
“I can only think of a couple of games all year long that he has not played well in,” Pearl said. “I can think of those couple of games, maybe Temple, maybe at Alabama, maybe at South Carolina, at Florida -- we lost those four games.”
Pearl’s intuition doesn’t betray him. In Auburn’s five losses, Harper shot 14-for-47 (29.7 percent) with a turnover-to-assist ratio of 18 to 11, including a zero-assist outing in Auburn’s most recent loss against the Gators.
Uncoincidentally in its loss in Gainesville, Auburn turned in its lowest scoring total of the season at 66 points.
When Harper dishes 4-plus dimes, Auburn is 20-2 and averages 86.2 points, a clip that would edge out Duke for the No. 3 scoring offense in college basketball.*
In contests that feature three or less assists from Harper, Auburn is 4-3, averaging 78 points per game. To put in perspective the team’s overall offensive efficiency however, 78 PPG would be good for third in the SEC this season.*
“Think about it, in four of our five losses, he didn't play well,” Pearl said. "But the rest of the year he's played great. So the key to beating Auburn is to stop Jared Harper. But he's one of our best players, so it goes without saying.”
Party like it's '99
On the cusp of at least a share of its first SEC title since 1999, the Tigers will need their best version of Harper in the final two games of the regular season.
The magic number for Auburn (24-5, 12-4 SEC) is one -- if both it and Tennessee (21-7, 11-5 SEC) go 1-1 in the final stretch, the Tigers will claim the crown outright -- which could occur Tuesday night with an Auburn win at Arkansas and a Vols loss at Mississippi State.
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If Auburn whiffs in both of its last two games (at the Razorbacks Feb. 27, vs. South Carolina March 3) and it finishes with the same conference record as UT, the two will share the title, as the SEC doesn’t consider tiebreakers when deciding regular season champions (Auburn defeated Tennessee in Knoxville Jan. 2, 94-84).
The road out is strikingly similar for both. Tennessee must play in Starkville Tuesday, where the Bulldogs have only dropped one home game this season, to Auburn Jan. 13, 76-68.
Correspondingly, Arkansas has only lost a trio in Fayetteville this season, one which came to emerging Kentucky. Amid an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak midseason, Arkansas also fell at home to LSU, which now sits at fourth-to-last in the conference, by 21.
Both squads come home Saturday, March 3 for heavily-favored home closers against teams they lost to late in the season on the road.
The Volunteers host Georgia, which beat UT in Athens, 73-62 Feb. 13. The Tigers will play Frank Martin’s Gamecocks, who downed Auburn 84-75 Feb. 17.
UT will tip off in Starkville at 6 p.m. CT on the SEC Network. Immediately following on the same channel, fans can catch Harper and the Tigers square off against the Razorbacks at 8 p.m. CT.
* : Stats as of games completed Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.