Dalton Knecht shoots up NBA draft boards, helping No. 5 Vols chase Final Four

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Dalton Knecht's decision to transfer to Tennessee and hopefully improve his NBA draft stock sure seems poised to pay off.

Both for him and the fifth-ranked Volunteers.

The 6-foot-6 forward leads the Southeastern Conference with 24.4 points per game since league play started in January — best for any high-major conference. His ability to knock down layups, dunks and 3-pointers has skyrocketed Knecht to a potential lottery pick this June.

“It’s worked out great for me," Knecht said.

Not only has Knecht played his way into consideration for both SEC and national player of the year, his ability to get key buckets could provide the missing link for coach Rick Barnes and Tennessee to finally earn the program's first Final Four berth.

“We didn’t have a guy that could go get the points like Dalton did tonight when we needed them,” Barnes said Tuesday night after a win at Missouri.

Knecht's scoring has put him in company with Tennessee legends like Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Chris Lofton and Allan Houston. With five regular-season games remaining, these Vols are a game back of No. 13 Alabama in the chase for the Southeastern Conference regular-season title.

“My teammates, they just told me it was going to be like this. But maybe I didn’t think it’s going to be like this much," Knecht said. "But it’s just really cool just to see our work pay off and be with great teammates and great coaching staff.”

The shooter from Thornton, Colorado, led the Big Sky at Northern Colorado last season by averaging 20.2 points. That was good enough to rank 23rd nationally in Division I.

Knecht knew he needed to hone other parts of his game, especially his defensive skills. The chance to play for the man who at Texas coached Kevin Durant, Knecht's favorite player growing up, made playing for Barnes the easy choice.

Barnes, who can notch his 800th career victory Saturday night when the Vols host Texas A&M, has asked Knecht to be the best player on the court, and not just when it comes to scoring.

“Every single time on defense, offense, rebounding,” Knecht said. "In every aspect of the game, he wants me to be consistent and the best.”

Knecht has been dazzling since the Volunteers started their SEC slate. He became the first Tennessee player to score at least 30 points in four of five games and the first SEC player to do that in 14 years. He became the seventh Tennessee player with five 30-point games in a season.

He credits his new teammates with helping ease his transition into the mighty SEC, which features five other ranked teams this week. After he scored 32 in a win at Vanderbilt, they crowded around as he took questions from reporters. One asking how it felt to be nicknamed the “White Mamba.”

“That’s what y’all call me," said Knecht, with a chuckle.

To improve defensively, coaches wanted Knecht more active in the passing lanes. He did just that last week in a road win at Arkansas. Assistant coach Gregg Polinsky said Knecht was asked to use his length defending the Razorbacks' top scorer, guard Tramon Mark.

“Sure enough, Dalton blocked a shot,” Polinsky said. “Great move, great matchup. But at the same time, that's Dalton. Like give him credit for kind of upping his game, if you will, at the defensive end of the floor. And we still know there's a lot more to go in a good way, so Dalton can keep getting better there.”

Knecht shook off a cold start Tuesday night at Missouri, after missing his first eight attempts. He then hit 6-of-8 shots in less than five minutes in the second half. He scored 15 of his 17 points in the final 13:18 as Tennessee pulled out a 72-67 win. He also finished with 10 rebounds for his first double-double this season.

With the return of fifth-year seniors Josiah Jordan-James and Santiago Vescovi, the Volunteers came into this season targeting that elusive Final Four berth. Knecht's ability to score when a bucket is needed most gives Tennessee that chance.

Playing in the SEC against faster, stronger players has been just what Knecht was looking for as well.

“You’re playing against top draft picks every single game almost,” Knecht said. "And yeah, it’s just real fun just to go out there and compete against the best and with my teammates.”

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