He transferred to the SEC from a northern school facing questions about how his skill set would translate. In time, his brilliance made it fair to wonder if he was the all-important missing piece of getting over the hump and winning a title.

Who did I just describe … Dalton Knecht or Joe Burrow?

“Yes” is the correct answer.

Knecht is trying to do what Burrow did. OK, I suppose every transfer in the 2020s decade is attempting to do what Burrow did. That is, be the all-important missing piece for a championship run.

Maybe the better way to phrase that is Knecht actually has a chance to do what Burrow did.

Of course, even if Knecht earns first-team All-American honors, he likely won’t be as revered as Burrow was. Tennessee Hoops isn’t putting together a season like 2019 LSU, but the end goal is still the same. Immortality is on the table.

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Both Tennessee hoops and 2010s LSU football always had that hurdle. LSU couldn’t figure out the quarterback position, and as a result, it endured an 8-game losing streak against Alabama. Tennessee can’t figure out March offense, and as a result, it has yet to reach an Elite 8 under Rick Barnes.

Yes, that’s a fair critique of Barnes. In 9 of his past 15 seasons as a head coach, his teams were bounced in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and in every one of those losses, his team was held to less than 70 points in regulation.

Last year wasn’t one of those seasons because Tennessee outmuscled Duke in the Round of 32 to move on to the second weekend. Going back to his days at Texas, it marked the first time in 15 years that Barnes defeated a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. In some ways, that statement win in Orlando was a “get over the hump” moment for the program. In other ways, being held to 55 points on 33% shooting in a loss to 9-seed FAU in the Sweet 16 was a “we’re still staring at that offensive hump” moment for the program.

It’s hard to fathom that Tennessee, with all of its promising teams of the past 15 years, is still searching for its first Final Four berth. Barnes only has 1 such trip to speak of, and it happened 21 years ago at Texas.

I know. That’s well-documented.

Also well-documented is the notion that Knecht is unlike any player that Barnes has had in Knoxville. As great of college players as guys like Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams were, they weren’t pure scorers like Knecht. He’s the guy who can get Tennessee through those games when it lets an inferior team hang around (via @KarthikV_ on Twitter/X).

That’s what he does. He might not be guaranteed to hit the 20-point mark every night — he does average 21 per game — but his ability to take over a game is among the best in college basketball.

It’s not just getting Tennessee out of its inevitable offensive ruts against lesser competition that makes Knecht special. If the Vols are going to make a deep March run, they need him to be that guy against elite foes, which Knecht has been. As of Tuesday, he ranked No. 2 in America with 24.1 points per game against Quad 1 foes (H/T @CBBAnalytics). Note that was before he went off for 39 points with a vintage run to close out a win against Auburn on Wednesday night.

Combine that spurtability with a group that still defends like a typical Barnes team. The Vols went into Tuesday’s game against Auburn ranked No. 2 in America in adjusted defensive efficiency. Last year’s squad finished No. 1 in that department. Each of the Vols’ past 3 teams finished in the top 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency — the previous 5 were not — which fueled those teams earning between a 3-5 seed.

But as Tennessee found out the hard way each of those 3 seasons, March is about having those shot-makers. Knecht might not be at Burrow’s levels of popularity, but a bona fide shot-maker, he is. He changes how teams defend the Vols, much like Burrow did in the Joe Brady-inspired LSU offense. The question is if Knecht changes Tennessee’s March upside.

The day that Tennessee’s 2022-23 run came to an end was also the same day that Knecht entered the transfer portal. I’d like to think that the second Barnes walked off the court at Madison Square Garden, he spent the flight home watching film of scorers from coast to coast and that when he got a look at the Big Sky Conference’s leading scorer, he called him from 30,000 feet and told him to enter his name in the portal by the time they hung up.

(I realize that logistically speaking, that doesn’t make any sense. But the story is even better if it played out that way, so let me have this.)

Four weeks later, Knecht chose Tennessee over staying out West at Oregon. At the time, the buzz was understandably minimal because with all due respect to Northern Colorado, the vast majority of us didn’t know that there was another school referred to as “UNC.” Headlines last April read “Knecht rounds out Vols’ transfer portal class.”

There’s a more flattering potential April headline that could await Knecht. It would be beyond SEC Player of the Year or first-team All-America honors. The headline could even be accompanied by a photo wherein he imitates Burrow’s signature cigar pose.

“Knecht leads Tennessee to first national championship in program history.”


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