Tennessee all-American Dalton Knecht took the long road to these lofty heights

Tennessee all-American Dalton Knecht took the long road to these lofty heights

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

DETROIT — In a road-trip country webbed with dream-filled interstates, the roads teem with stories even if nobody knows them as they roll along. It seems that last summer a story made its way the 18½ hours from the middle of Colorado to the eastern chunk of Tennessee. The story apparently made a stop in Indiana along the way.

In the Acura rode a father who had played basketball at Mayville State in Mayville, N.D., the kind of admirable dedication that doesn’t suggest a slew of frills, and a 6-foot-6 son. Had they told anyone along their trudge of a trek where the son would turn up on the last Saturday in March 2024, the listeners might have presumed them bananas.

That son, Dalton Knecht, that transfer from less-televised Northern Colorado to more-televised Tennessee, would sit in an interview room at the Elite Eight as one of two first-team all-Americans in Sunday’s Purdue-Tennessee Midwest Region final clash (the other being Purdue tower Zach Edey). He would field questions as one of the mere four Naismith player of the year finalists and as a presence in the country’s roughly 1 billion NBA mock drafts (often in the teens), and he would supply solicited advice on how to withstand long road trips with parents.

“I just put my headphones in,” he said, “and just didn’t listen to my dad at all.”

Rewarded with a guffaw or two from that, he said, “On my phone, or blocking him out.”

And so, “Just acting like he’s not in there.”

What an ascent of a journey they have taken, Knecht and his family, one so dizzying for followers of college basketball that it’s easy to understand how Rick Barnes felt the need to say what he said Saturday. Barnes, the young and beloved 69-year-old coach with six seasons at Providence, four at Clemson, 17 at Texas and nine at Tennessee, said of Knecht and Edey, “Those guys, they deserved every honor that they’ve gotten, but both of them would tell you that they would defer to their teammates for helping them get what they’ve gotten done.”

That’s true especially if one considers Tennessee’s defense, the kind of presence that can make an opponent want to run screaming out of the gym. That includes the great defender point guard Zakai Zeigler, and the excellent defender Jahmai Mashack, who gave the assessment that what “separates us as a team” is not so much the pressure but the sustenance of that pressure: “To sustain that for as long as we do, it wears on teams. That wears on teams, trust me.”

It’s just that as that defense stoked an 18-0 run Friday night that sling-shotted Tennessee ahead of Creighton in the Sweet 16, Knecht was getting 26 splashy points on 8-for-21 shooting, including 3-for-7 three-point shooting, along with six rebounds and five assists. That followed 18 points and nine rebounds against Texas in the second round and 23 points and eight rebounds against Saint Peter’s in the first. All of that has inched upward Knecht’s scoring average, which stands at 21.2 and 14th in the country (with the 7-foot-4 Edey at No. 1 at 24.6), boosted by eye-catching scoring binges in several games. More so, he was adding that extra component to a program that had already graced the Sweet 16 in 2019 and 2023, and the tournament all the years bunched around that since 2018, even as it seeks its first Final Four berth.

Wider than that, he epitomizes a bit of a trickle of a trend: players who come from the side roads or the back roads to real prominence at the top tier. Three of the 10 men on the all-American first and second teams did that in some form: Knecht (from Northern Colorado), Tristen Newton of Connecticut (from East Carolina after getting no offers early on) and Mark Sears of Alabama (from Ohio, which is smaller of budget but not of aspiration, with a Sweet 16 berth in 2012 and second-round advances in 2010 and 2021). DJ Burns, the fresh sensation of Elite Eight entry North Carolina State, stopped by Tennessee way back when, then honed his near-unguardable craft at Winthrop.

It has shone welcome light on the quality present at those tiers.

“I mean, if you’re a good basketball player, you’re a good basketball player, no matter if you’re playing D3, D2 or at a small mid-major school around the country,” said Josiah-Jordan James, a 6-foot-7 guard and fifth-season sage on the Tennessee team. “Like, the hard work is always going to show, and I give credit to Dalton and J.G. [Jordan Gainey] and transfer guys who came from smaller schools,” with Gainey having reached Tennessee from USC Upstate in South Carolina. “Their work ethic is second to none.”

He spoke of these transfer portal days and said: “It’s just about finding the right guys and having the right fit. Fit is really big, because you can be a really talented player and not get an opportunity, and have to go somewhere else for another opportunity.”

Knecht spoke some old truths applicable to pre-portal days when he said Saturday: “I think it just shows that you don’t have to be the number one kid in your class or the top 10 kid in your class, that you can go to a juco, or you can go to a mid-major, [then] go to one of the best schools in the nation and be one of the best players on that team. So I think no matter what, you’ve just got to stay believing in yourself, and have that belief, and also, just, hard work pays off.”

He began fielding calls from coaches last spring, gathering particular inspiration from Tennessee assistant Rod Clark. Clark, a 31-year-old with a ton of coaching talent who played at Neosho Community College in Kansas, Redlands Community College in Oklahoma and NAIA Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, knew also about Northeastern Junior College in Colorado, which is where Knecht started out. Clark had two relatives who played there, Knecht said, and the two young men spoke fluently the juco dialect. Eleven months, 250 field goals (in 546 attempts), 87 three-pointers (in 222 attempts) and 173 rebounds (4.9 per game) later, the roads have led into the mountains, both literally and figuratively.

That’s even as Knecht plans to avoid those roads from now on.

“Never doing that again,” he said of the road trip. “Eighteen-and-a-half hours is not it.”

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