Dalton Knecht was ready for the moment

Marvin Westwestwords

It was no accident that Dalton Knecht hit four free throws with the prime-time CBS audience watching and the weight of the college basketball world on his shoulders.

He’d been in that situation a thousand times – in his mind.

Since little boyhood, he has practiced shooting the ball with the expressed purpose of it going through the hoop. His dad helped firm up that idea. It lives on, firmly in place. Big moments are big opportunities.

Even now, as an All-American, as the best player in the Southeastern Conference, he often stays after team practice to shoot some more. Sometimes he returns to the gym in the middle of the night.

Graduate assistant coach and friend Riley Collins goes there with him, to catch the hits, chase occasional misses and give him back the ball. Dalton and Riley are proverbial gym rats. Riley actually lives at Food City Center – to save the cost of rent.

Here is how Knecht thinks.

After a Sunday night film session, as the Vols were scattering, Rick Barnes stopped Dalton to show him something else on his iPad. He had three clips from Kevin Durant’s best college games.

Kevin Durant just happens to be Dalton’s favorite player. Durant just happens to be Barnes’ most famous recruit in 17 seasons as Texas coach.

In the video, Durant scored 37, 32 and 37. Barnes narrated each play. It really gets Knecht’s attention that the man who coached Kevin Durant now coaches him.

The senior Vol found his practice partner and worked for much of an hour on the points Barnes had just presented – get the ball up to the rim quickly, drive hard into gaps, use your body to shield the ball from the defender.

“What makes Dalton unique is he doesn’t ever want to stop learning,” said Collins.

“He is what he is because he works,” said Barnes.

Knecht can’t remember when basketball was not big in his life. He fell in love with the game at age 6. He and his father, Corey, watched the NBA on TV. Dalton wanted to be a point guard. Dad knew something. He had played at Mayville State, an NAIA school in North Dakota.

“Consistency is everything. Stay balanced. Set your feet. Follow the shot with your hand as if you were waving goodbye.”

Alas, Dalton was slow to develop physically but he grew into a 21-point average as a senior at Prairie View High in Henderson, Colo. That didn’t make much of an impression on college recruiters. And, grades weren’t very good. Algebra and English had been distant interests.

He went to Northeastern Junior College. Louisville and Georgia showed token interest. He chose Northern Colorado because it was in his comfort zone.

“I didn’t know what was going on in the world, and I wanted to stay close to home.”

Knecht is at Tennessee because of Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark.

Knecht led the Big Sky Conference last season with 20.2 points per game. One of his best nights happened against Weber State. Clark happened to be watching because he’d coached Weber star Dillon Jones in prep school.

Later, when Clark saw Knecht’s name on the transfer portal list, he recalled what he had seen. He realized he had three connections in his shirt pocket. Clark had come up a similar ladder from junior college. He had read that Knecht admired Kevin Durant. Clark had once asked an NBA scout about Knecht and was told he needed to learn how to play defense.

Clark asked Barnes if it was OK to contact Knecht. Clark told Dalton that Barnes had coached Durant and that Tennessee had the best defense in college basketball. Knecht got the message.

Clark scored big as the key recruiter. He still serves as Dalton’s sounding board. Knecht remains a careful listener. So, what does Clark say?

“Soak this in. Enjoy it. Because this is going to be the best time in your life.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *