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Tennessee Basketball: Dalton Knecht can take Vols to unprecedented heights

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Jon Sunvold, who was an All-American at Missouri, a first-round draft pick and a nine-year NBA veteran, knows an NBA player when he sees one – and he sees one in Tennessee Basketball leading scorer Dalton Knecht.

Knecht’s game will “transfer well” to the NBA, Sunvold said earlier this week at the Big Orange Tip-Off Club. “He shoots it. He’s more athletic than anyone thought. He hangs in the air.”

“Defensively, he’s not great. But he’s not paid to play defense in the NBA.

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“He’ll be a top five or six draft pick.”

Tennessee Basketball has had only one of those: Tom Boerwinkle in 1968 was the No. 4 overall pick by the Chicago Bulls. Two others were top 10 picks: Bernard King went No. 7 in 1977 and Dale Ellis was No. 9 in 1983.

Three were picked No. 11 overall: Allan Houstin in 1993, Ernie Grunfeld in 1977 and Gene Tormohlen in 1959.

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Sunvold, a color analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network, predicts Knecht will be named the SEC Player of the Year. He would join nine others from UT, including King, Grunfeld, Ellis, Tony White, Ron Slay, Chris Lofton, Grant Williams, Ron Widby and Mike Edwards.

Knecht is averaging 20.2 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 48.1% from the field and 39% on 3s.

In SEC play only, Knecht has been more impressive, averaging 26.9 points, 5.3 rebounds while hitting 50.9% from the field and 42.1% on 3s.

LSU coach Matt McMahon, a native of Oak Ridge, sang Knecht’s and UT’s praises after an 88-68 drubbing at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night.

“It’s important to note, they (Vols) have really good players around Knecht,” McMahon said. “They’ve got some guys more experienced than NBA starting fives.

“Obviously, Knecht has turned himself into a top 10 NBA pick. But if you spend all your time locked in on him, Ziegler and James will go for 52 (combined) points like they did Saturday (at Kentucky). … They’re a tough cover.”

Knecht’s ascent has been amazing. He went to a junior college for academic reasons, enrolled at Northern Colorado where, as a junior, he averaged 8.9 points and started only 11 of 38 games. The next season, he led the Big Sky in scoring at 20.2 points per game.

At Tennessee, he has scored 30 points five times – four in SEC games and once at North Carolina.

He could be the missing link to take Tennessee Basketball where it has never been before.

“Dalton Knecht can take this team to the Final Four,” Sunvold said.

Then he added a qualifier: “But only if James and Vescovi (play to their potential). James and Vescovi have to be aggressive and tough enough to make shots.”

James has snapped out of a lengthy slump, scoring 26 points at Kentucky and hitting both 3s against LSU.

Vescovi has been up and down, averaging a five-year career low at UT of 7.7 points while shooting a career-low 35.2% from 3-point range.

Sunvold thinks James and Vescovi have struggled learning to play with Knecht and might be pressing since this is their senior season and the future is uncertain: Can they play in the NBA or be forced to play overseas?

Sunvold said Knecht could solve UT’s weakness in the NCAA tournament in recent years.

“You’ve got to have a guy that can get you baskets,” Sunvold said.

Sunvold said UT is one of the “premier teams” in the nation, along with UConn, Purdue, North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, Duke and Kansas.

“When you narrow the (Final Four) window down,” Sunvold said, “Tennessee is one of those teams.”

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