How Auburn became Georgia's top college basketball program in a few short years

That's not a typo. Since Auburn was last swept by UGA, Bruce Pearl's Tigers have been better than anyone in the Bulldogs' backyard.

PG Sharife Cooper (Tony Walsh/Georgia Athletics)

Updated: April 12

Auburn was down by one point with 13 seconds left. Danjel Purifoy stole a pass from J.J. Frazier, who had scored 31 points to bring Georgia back from what had been a 16-point hole at home. The Tigers called timeout and had a chance for a game-winner.

The ball went to Jared Harper, who put up a 3-pointer. It didn’t fall. Auburn left the court in disappointment after a 79-78 loss in Athens. Georgia had completed the season sweep.

That was March 1, 2017. A few days later, Auburn would beat Missouri at home to finish 7-11 in SEC play, then lose to the same Tigers squad in the first round of the SEC Tournament. The third season of the Bruce Pearl era ended with no NCAA bid, extending the program’s drought to 15 years.

"I think you can see from our standpoint that we have a very bright future," Pearl told reporters after the loss to Georgia. "When you start four freshmen and a sophomore like we do, and we have a good group coming in next year. ... We are not done yet, either."

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Pearl knew what was coming next. Three months earlier, his program signed Chuma Okeke, a 4-star forward from Atlanta who was a top-50 recruit nationally. It also added Davion Mitchell, a 4-star point guard from Georgia’s Liberty County who was just slightly behind Okeke in the overall rankings. Then there was Malik Dunbar, a JUCO transfer who hailed from right across the Georgia state line in North Augusta, S.C.

That trio would join up with Harper, Bryce Brown and Anfernee McLemore — three Georgia natives who Pearl brought to Auburn. None of them had scholarship offers from the in-state Bulldogs.

“They didn't offer me,” McLemore said in 2018. “They recruited me, but they didn't offer me. It's always like a big rivalry for me, personally, when I play against Georgia, because I'm from South Georgia. So I have a whole bunch of Georgia fans from my hometown. It just means a lot to me.”

When Auburn lost that nail-biter to Georgia in Athens, Pearl dropped to 2-4 against the Bulldogs as the Tigers’ head coach.

Pearl’s words in the postgame press conference would ring true a year later. With Harper, Brown and McLemore in the starting lineup — with Okeke, Mitchell and Dunbar playing key roles off the bench — Auburn won the 2017-18 SEC regular season title and punched its long-awaited ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Auburn beat Georgia both times that season by a combined 31 points.

“Our Georgia kids aren’t here because Georgia wanted them,” Pearl said in 2018. “Georgia wanted Chuma, for sure. But they didn’t recruit Jared, they didn’t recruit Bryce, they didn’t recruit Anfernee, they didn’t recruit Malik. And they took other Georgia kids over those kids. It would be like an Alabama kid at Georgia that I didn’t recruit because they didn’t think they were good enough. There’s always that motivation for our players.”

Auburn has now won six out of its last seven games against Georgia. Thanks to that recent success, the Tigers now lead the all-time series against the Bulldogs, 97-95.

Auburn picked up its first SEC win of the current season on Jan. 13 at Georgia. If the Tigers can beat the Bulldogs again Tuesday night, this time inside Auburn Arena, they will have swept their nearby rivals for the third time in the last four years.

“Georgia, because of the depth and the number of great high-school players, quality of high-school coaching, AAU coaching, there's a lot of good players there,” Pearl said Monday. “We're obviously close to the border and try to take full advantage of it.”

PG Sharife Cooper and HC Bruce Pearl (Tony Walsh/Georgia Athletics)

Auburn has flipped the rivalry’s balance of power in a huge way. Pearl’s Tigers are 91-32, with a 40-23 record in SEC play, since the start of the 2017-18 season. The Bulldogs are 55-58 overall and 17-46 against conference opponents.

Auburn made it to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four run, and would have added a third last year if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 cancelation. Georgia went to the NIT shortly after sweeping Auburn in 2017 and hasn’t been to the postseason since, undergoing a coaching change from Mark Fox to Tom Crean during that span.

The dominance in the rivalry started with dominance in recruiting. Under Pearl, Auburn has become the biggest benefactor of Georgia recruits in all of college basketball. Most of its recent stars hail from the Peach State.

From the 2017 class to the current 2021 class, Auburn has signed nine high school prospects from Georgia and added an additional transfer from there. Eight of them ranked inside the top six in the state’s recruiting rankings. All eight of those were blue-chip recruits.

(Keep in mind that this stretch also includes a near-empty 2018 recruiting class for Auburn, thanks in part to NCAA issues stemming from the Chuck Person scandal.)

  • PF Chuma Okeke (Westlake in Atlanta): No. 4 in Georgia, No. 47 nationally in 2017

  • PG Davion Mitchell (Liberty County in Hinesville): No. 6 in Georgia, No. 59 nationally in 2017

  • SF Isaac Okoro (McEachern in Powder Springs): No. 2 in Georgia, No. 36 nationally in 2019

  • PF/C Jaylin Williams (Brantley County in Nahunta): No. 4 in Georgia, No. 120 nationally in 2019

  • C Babatunde “Stretch” Akingbola (McEachern): No. 13 in Georgia, No. 291 nationally in 2019

  • PG Sharife Cooper (McEachern): No. 2 in Georgia, No. 24 nationally in 2019

  • PF JT Thor (Norcross): No. 3 in Georgia, No. 53 nationally in 2020 — originally a 2021 recruit

  • C Dylan Cardwell (McEachern): No. 11 in Georgia, No. 170 nationally

  • PF Jabari Smith (Sandy Creek in Tyrone): No. 1 in Georgia, No. 5 nationally

  • C Walker Kessler (Woodward Academy in Fairburn): No. 1 in Georgia, No. 22 nationally in 2020 (transfer from North Carolina)

That above list features a near-NBA lottery pick in Okeke, a No. 5 overall draft pick in Okoro, a program-changing freshman point guard in Cooper and a potential one-and-done talent in Smith. Williams and Thor are impressive starters on the current team, while Cardwell has been a breakout player off the bench. Mitchell, the lone departure on this list, has blossomed into a star after transferring to Baylor.

“Our Georgia kids have come here, they've had success, they've won championships, they've graduated, they've gone on to the pros,” Pearl said.

From 2017 to 2021, Auburn has signed more players from the state of Georgia (10) than Georgia has (7). The Tigers have more than doubled up the Bulldogs in top-six state products and blue-chip recruits, too, at 8 to 3. Compared to Auburn’s seven, only two Bulldogs have been top-60 recruits nationally — Rayshaun Hammonds and last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Edwards, whose team would have fallen well short of a hypothetical NCAA bid without an SEC Tournament title.

Auburn made recruiting Georgia a priority early in Pearl’s tenure, and that emphasis turned into overlooked recruits who become stars on title-winning teams. Now, the Tigers are the No. 1 team in getting the state’s top-rated prospects — and it’s not even close.

Blue-chip recruits from Georgia by school, 2017-2021

  • Auburn: 8

  • Duke: 3

  • Florida State: 3

  • Georgia: 3

  • Mississippi State: 3

  • Alabama: 2

  • Florida: 2

  • Kentucky: 2

  • Louisville: 2

  • Arkansas: 1

  • Georgetown: 1

  • LSU: 1

  • North Carolina: 1

  • Oklahoma State: 1

  • Texas Tech: 1

  • USC: 1

  • USF: 1

  • Virginia Tech: 1

  • Xavier: 1

Pearl made beating Georgia a priority on and off the court when he arrived at Auburn. He constantly stresses the importance of the rivalry to the fan base, a fact he references to his players often. Because there is usually more talent just across the state line than in Auburn’s home territory, it carries a different kind of weight than even the bitter rivalry against Alabama.

Crean landed Edwards, Georgia’s top recruit by a significant margin, in 2019. Auburn answered back with Okoro — who would get drafted just four spots behind Edwards despite being 34 spots back in the national recruiting rankings out of high school — and Williams as a one-two blue-chip punch.

In 2020, Auburn and Georgia both missed out on top prospect Walker Kessler, who went to North Carolina. (Update: About that!) Auburn, instead, landed the next two highest-rated Georgia products in Cooper and Thor. (Update: Then it added Kessler via transfer a year later.) Georgia’s top in-state recruit in what turned out to be a transfer-heavy incoming class for Crean was forward Josh Taylor, who was just ahead of Auburn’s Cardwell at No. 10.

And, in the 2021 class, Auburn has landed the biggest prize in the state in Smith — the only Tigers’ signee who has had a higher rating than Cooper coming out of high school. With the state of Georgia’s top 15 recruits in 2021 already committed or signed, the Bulldogs’ top name is at No. 14.

The foundation was laid by the likes of Harper, Brown and McLemore. Then Auburn started getting Georgia’s top in-state targets, and the strength of its recruiting power has only grown. Players such as Williams, Thor and Smith have shown it goes beyond the McEachern pipeline, too.

Auburn has already gotten its big recruiting win in Georgia for the 2021 class. But a win over Georgia on Tuesday night could help matters in the 2022 class — which features 5-star point guard and Marietta native Scoot Henderson, who is considered to be an Auburn lean — and beyond.

It’s also another chance for Pearl’s team to make a little history, which has been the rallying cry of a team that is going through a self-imposed postseason ban this year.

“This is an improved Georgia team and it’s hard to beat a good team twice,” Pearl said Monday. “It is. … If you look historically, there aren't many sweeps over Georgia. The series has been very even over the years.”

But a win Tuesday night, again, would seal the third sweep in the last four years. It would also further cement Auburn’s status as the program to beat in the Peach State — even if its campus is just 20 minutes west of the state line.

“Georgia has been good to us,” Pearl said. “And I think, in many ways, we've been good to Georgia.”

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Up next on The Auburn Observer: Observations from Auburn’s home game against Georgia will be sent out to subscribers Wednesday morning. Look for a premium podcast episode either Wednesday or Thursday discussing the game and all the news from National Signing Day on the football side — and there will be a post-NSD newsletter out Thursday morning.

You can go ahead and send in your questions for this week’s Aubserver Mailbag by tweeting them @JFergusonAU on Twitter or emailing them to the1andonlyJF@gmail.com.