The dog days of College Basketball are looming. The final month of the regular season is infamous for wearing down pretenders and unveiling Final Four contenders. Teams that tend to gel in February begin to separate themselves from the pack and line themselves up beautifully for a March Madness run. Just ask the UConn Huskies.
Last season, the Dan Hurley-led squad had dropped 6 of 9 contests heading into February, but then witnessed a major shift. The Huskies healed up, which added depth to their bench, and veteran leaders stepped up. UConn would go on to only lose one more game the rest of the way en route to their fifth national title, becoming college basketball’s newest blue blood.
Turning the calendar to 2024, the Tennessee Vols are poised to create some late season magic of their own. It’s no secret that UT has never made it to the Final Four and only once to the Elite Eight in 2010. However, Rick Barnes looks to make a little bit of history in his 8th season in charge of the Big Orange.
Entering this season, Tennessee (14-4, 4-1) was believed by many to be in line for a deep run in March. Despite losing Julian Phillips to the NBA, the Vols returned big man Santiago Véscovi and added highly coveted transfer Dalton Knecht from Northern Colorado. Knecht, despite coming from a much smaller Division I school, caught the eye of many big name programs because of his three point sharpshooting capabilities and overall offensive versatility. To say his recruitment by Head Coach Barnes was worthwhile would be one of the biggest understatements in Vols program history.
His immediate impact on the floor allowed Tennessee to capture impressive wins over Wisconsin and Illinois, while going toe-to-toe with CBK juggernauts Purdue, Kansas, and UNC. Regardless of suffering three straight losses versus the aforementioned schools, UT and Knecht proved they can battle with the big boys on a consistent basis.
Since taking the early season punches, this team has forged a path back into the top 10 in the rankings where they will fight to remain through February. Dalton Knecht’s ability to take over the locker room in his first season in Knoxville is a testament to his character and maturity as a 22-year-old young man. If that was not enough, the Fargo, North Dakota native continues to up his game during SEC play.
Over the last four outings, he has scored an incredible 128 points (32.0 ppg) which undoubtedly caught the attention of NBA scouts. On3.com reports that most analysts and pundits—for whatever that is worth—believe Knecht is seen by most franchises as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft (top-14 selection).
So is this finally the year? With this level of fortified team leadership the Vols have never seen before, a Final Four appearance is not only the dream, it is the expectation. The road to Phoenix, home of this season’s semifinals and national championship, will be paved by what Rick Barnes and this team does in February.
That work begins now. Tennessee wraps up their January schedule with a short trip here to Nashville versus Vandy this Saturday before returning home on January 30 to face a pesky South Carolina squad. As fate would have it, their first February date is against none other than arch nemesis, #8 Kentucky, in Rupp Arena on Feb. 3rd. Stay tuned, folks!