NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Georgia

No. 5 Tennessee rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final 6:24 to escape with an 85-79 win at Georgia on Saturday behind 36 points from Dalton Knecht. The Northern Colorado transfer scored 15 points over the final 9:15 to key the comeback as the Volunteers withstood a 3-point barrage from the Bulldogs to avoid an 0-2 week.

Knecht's offensive explosion underscored why this Tennessee team may be different from some of its predecessors under Rick Barnes. In his ninth season, Barnes has built the Volunteers into a steady winner on the back of perennially great defenses. But those teams have too often fizzled in March due to a lack of offensive firepower.

That's a problem Knecht is fixing for Tennessee (12-4, 2-1 SEC). The 6-foot-6 wing scored 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a loss at Mississippi State on Wednesday before going 12 of 20 at Georgia -- a sterling performance that included shooting 5 for 8 from 3-point range.

He is the focal point of every opposing scouting report after going for 24 points in a win at Wisconsin and 37 in a loss at North Carolina in nonconference play, but is managing to produce anyway. Knecht is the first player in Barnes' Tennessee tenure to notch multiple 35+ point performances in a season.

The only times he's failed to reach double figures through 16 games at Tennessee came in relatively easy victories against Ole Miss, Georgia Southern, Tarleton State and NC State, when the Vols didn't need his best.

When the Vols have needed Knecht's best in hostile environments against quality opponents, he's typically delivered. That bodes well for a couple of months from now, when Tennessee will be trying to make it past the Sweet 16 for just the second time in program history.

Knecht's propensity for showing up big in tough spots is also the most surprising part of his adaptation to Tennessee. In two seasons at Northern Colorado, he played three games against high-major opposition. In those three games, he made 8 of 24 shots and totaled 23 points, offering no signs that what he is presently doing at Tennessee was a possibility. Thus, when the Vols landed a commitment from Knecht, it failed to register as one of the most significant movements in the 2023 transfer cycle. He came in at No. 47 in the CBS Sports Transfer Rankings, and my assessment still seems fair in retrospect:

"His Northern Colorado team was just 12-20 in the 2022-23 season, and there will be questions over how his sharpshooting prowess translates to a better team and league. But he's clearly worth a shot for Tennessee after the Volunteers made just 32.9% of their 3-point attempts last season."

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Georgia
Dalton Knecht's clutch shooting sparked Tennessee's comeback vs. Georgia. USATSI

How Rick Barnes is adjusting

Knecht has made it clear one of the reasons he chose Tennessee is because he knew Barnes would help him improve as a defender, which will be a critical step as he pursues an NBA career. Considering that he ranks seventh on his team in defensive rating at, that element of his game is still a work in progress.

What Knecht is providing Tennessee offensively is far more valuable than whatever hit the Volunteers are taking defensively with him on the floor. It's to Barnes' credit that he recognizes this.

So often over the years, Barnes' first instinct upon seeing a player make a defensive mistake — or a mistake of any sort — has been to immediately remove that player from the game. It was his approach with Justin Powell two seasons ago, and the results were dispiriting.

After an encouraging freshman season at Auburn that was cut short by injury, Powell transferred to Tennessee with a similar frame and game as Knecht. He could have been useful when the Vols made just 2 of 18 attempts from 3-point range in a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan in 2022.

By then, he was no longer part of the rotation after seeing his role consistently diminished throughout the season as Barnes used a quick hook on Powell after turnovers or defensive lapses. Powell promptly transferred to Washington State and resumed the prolific 3-point shooting ability he'd shown at Auburn by becoming one of the top perimeter marksmen in the Pac-12.

Powell profiled as exactly the type of player Tennessee needed to improve offensively, but the failed partnership only bolstered Barnes' reputation as an offensive dinosaur. The Volunteers' last three teams ranked between No. 232 and No. 313 in adjusted tempo, per KenPom. 

While they stifled opponents defensively, the Vols were simply helpless offensively on the rare and costly nights when the other team managed to get hot. 

Georgia got hot on Saturday, and this time Tennessee was equipped to respond. The Volunteers rank 85th in adjusted tempo this season, which is their highest such rating in Barnes' tenure. When you're trailing, you want the game to have more possessions because it increases your chances of scoring enough to reduce the deficit.

Barnes has also, mercifully, gotten away from the habit of playing two traditional big men together, which has opened driving lanes for Zakai Zeigler.

Most importantly, though, he is letting Knecht shine.

The race for SEC Player of the Year is wide open. So is the race to be SEC champion. 

Saturday's final few minutes showed why Knecht and the Vols are firmly in the running for both.