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Why March matters to Tennessee star Dalton Knecht and Vols’ coach Rick Barnes

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Tennessee wing Dalton Knecht never doubted himself. However, he has yet to fully be tested. That’s coming up soon.

After winning SEC Player of the Year on Monday, Knecht was his usual calm, collected self when he visited with the media after winning the award. 

“I knew I kind of belonged, as well as like the coaching staff,” Knecht said about the transition from Northern Colorado. “They always told me I would belong and I could do all these things and accomplish all this and stuff like that when I came on my visit. So it was kind of just listening to them and following a blueprint that they had when I came on my visit.” 

Knecht has proven himself nearly beyond measure in the regular season. However, March is a different story. Knecht will ultimately be judged by what he does in the coming weeks, not by what he has done at Tennessee to this point. Just ask Tennessee coach Rick Barnes about that. He’s called “Regular Season Rick” by some because of his lack of success in the postseason, just one Final Four in an otherwise illustrious career.

Knecht has been a great story. However, if the Vols flame out in March, he’ll just be another great player and heaped upon a pile of great players at Tennessee that never had much postseason success.

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March is different. The warm-up is this week with the SEC Tournament, but it may be more than just a run through. If the Vols can’t put up a decent showing in the conference tournament, which begins on Wednesday, one has to wonder about their ability to have success moving forward. Tennessee will play on Friday against an unknown team with more to play for than the Vols, which could include a possible tournament bid. As for UT, the Vols are playing for seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

If the Vols make it a short trip to Nashville, they’ll likely have a much tougher path to success nationally. The Vols could fall to a second seed or they could be funnelled into the West Region, which would eventually send them to Los Angeles. Neither would be ideal.

Knecht has shown multiple times this season that he doesn’t shy away from the spotlight in big games. However, if he truly does “belong” among the top stars of college basketball, it’s time to shine the brightest. Sure, Knecht has been one of the top stories in college basketball, one of the best players in the sport and one of the best players in Tennessee basketball history, but that history has produced far too may players that have belonged in the regular season, not the postseason.

Knecht also has a 69-year-old chip on his shoulder. As much as Knecht wants to win for himself, surely he wants to help Tennessee coach Rick Barnes right the ship on his career narrative. Barnes, who will be 70 in July, doesn’t have much time to prove he belongs among the elite coaches in the history of college basketball. This may be Barnes’ last shot at a deep tournament run or, even, a championship. Knecht is the key to that, perhaps to a fault.

Knecht has been so good at times that he’s either left his teammates behind, which seemed to be the case against Kentucky on Saturday, or he’s been depended on too much. Will that be case with the game on the line? Will Knecht feel as if he still belongs with a key shot to be made. Barnes may be betting his career on it.

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