Rexrode: Vols’ loss to Kentucky despite Dalton Knecht’s 40 makes SEC tourney mission clear

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — So if the Tennessee Volunteers can get a career-high 40 points from Dalton Knecht on his senior day at home and still lose to the Kentucky Wildcats, as they did Saturday, in the latest example of Knecht carrying them offensively, that has to mean they’d be painfully mediocre without him.

Right? Wrong. Very wrong. This would not be a top-shelf national championship contender, as it still is despite an 85-81 loss to an ultra-talented opponent on an absurd shooting day at Food City Center at Thompson-Boling Arena. This would not be the outright champion of a loaded SEC, as was determined before the teams took the floor. This would not be a strong contender for an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed, as it still is, a pursuit that will be heated and important in the week to come.

But it would be a top-five SEC team and probably something like a No. 4 NCAA seed, because Knecht joined a really good group that was already built to succeed. His one-year burst of basketball brilliance has raised the ceiling as high as it’s been — not just under Rick Barnes but under anyone coaching Tennessee men’s basketball. It’s a tremendous gift.

But Saturday’s loss, in the wake of a tough title clincher at South Carolina, for what Barnes called a “way, way, way too emotional” team coming off senior day ceremonies, also reminded that it can be a challenge for the Knecht-ettes. And that the Knecht-ifying of this offense in some ways strains other parts of it.

Think of a hockey goalie whose team is dominating the puck and keeping it in the offensive zone, and who by virtue of that help is actually more vulnerable when an odd-man rush randomly comes the other way. Steady work makes for good work. Sporadic opportunities are more easily squandered — rhythm is lower, pressure is higher. I think that’s best personified on this team by Santiago Vescovi.

The fifth-year senior guard was scoreless in 20 minutes in his home finale, missing all five of his shots. The point here is not to pick on Vescovi, because he deserves every kind word that was spoken about him this week — he and Josiah James both, whom Barnes called program “cornerstones.” That was not hyperbole.

That was an accurate assessment of two players who basically took the baton from Grant Williams starting with the 2019-20 season and maintained the standards that Williams’ group set. They’re excellent players on both ends of the floor who do countless things, quantifiable and otherwise, to win. Any coach would love them and they’re among many reasons this team can contend.

But let’s go back to the scenario in which Tennessee doesn’t make the transfer portal add of transfer portal adds with Knecht from Northern Colorado. Part of the reason this team would still be really good is that Vescovi would be relied on much more, would be getting that steady work, and would be around where he was the past two seasons — leading UT with 12.5 points per game last season, finishing second with 13.3 the previous season.

That 2021-22 season saw him take 253 3-pointers and make 40.3 percent of them. Rhythm higher, pressure lower. Tennessee ran a lot of stuff to get him shots. This season, Vescovi has taken 120 triples, making a career-low 34.2 percent of them while scoring a career-low 6.8 points per game. It’s not because he’s not good anymore.

On the team without Knecht, James is the same steady force on both ends he has been through his career. Point guard Zakai Zeigler is still one of the best point guards in America, Jonas Aidoo is still one of the most valuable big men.

Jahmai Mashack is still a high-energy stopper, but he’s also probably getting more offensive opportunities. Same with Jordan Gainey, while Tobe Awaka is still a key interior piece and a talented freshman class is doing more. Chris Ledlum, who transferred in from Harvard but later switched to St. Johns and is averaging 9.4 points a game, might still be around.

And Vescovi would be a central figure in the offense for a third straight season. Think of how difficult this must be for him, not because he’s selfish or puts anything above winning — he’s not and he doesn’t. But being unselfish is one thing. Being ready and able to perform when a shot randomly comes your way is another.

Vescovi has never complained. He never will. But he can and should be more to this team than a gritty defender.

Look back on some of this team’s worst performances and losses and you’ll see similar lines from him. Three shots, no makes in a loss to Purdue. One shot, a miss, in a loss at North Carolina. Four shots, one make and two points in a loss at Mississippi State. Six shots, one make and five points in a loss at Texas A&M. I asked Barnes after Saturday’s game about the importance of getting Vescovi going in the postseason that starts Friday as the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

“If I could, I would do it,” Barnes said. “He’s gonna have to do it. He’s gonna have to trust himself and believe in how good of a player he is. He’s gonna have to do it.”

Maybe Tennessee can be more intentional at times in getting Vescovi shots, though. The Vols ran a play to get James a shot to start the second half, for example. He nailed it and that got him started on an eight-point half. James also missed a tying 3-point attempt in the waning seconds as Kentucky tried to blow a double-digit lead in the last minute, but it was a good look. Knecht had fallen down and was on the other side of the floor, and that was the right shot. It just didn’t go down.

There will be more shots ahead for James and Gainey and Zeigler and Aidoo in huge games to come with opponents throwing multiple defenders at Knecht to take the ball out of his hands. They all need to be ready.

But in Nashville, where I believe if the Vols win Friday and Saturday they will have a wrap on the first No. 1 seed in program history, I also believe the mantra should be, “Get Vescovi going.”

There’s nothing wrong with having the most feared scoring wing in college basketball and putting the ball in his hands. There’s nothing wrong with this team if Knecht can just get a little bit more help.



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(Photo: Randy Sartin / USA Today)

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