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How Dalton Knecht must adjust after hitting ‘rock bottom’

After a hot start, it’s been a tough couple of games.

NCAA Basketball: Hall of Fame Series-San Antonio-N.C. State at Tennessee Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first month of the season, Dalton Knecht was unstoppable. Over the last week? Well, we’ve seen him struggle for the first time since arriving in Knoxville. Knecht scored just two points against NC State, which followed a seven point outing against Georgia Southern. That’s a far cry from the 20 points per game that he was averaging to open the season.

Frankly, considering how loaded with veterans that this roster already was, it was a bit of a surprise to see him come along so quickly. Tennessee won in a completely different way on Saturday against NC State, riding the hot shooting of Josiah-Jordan James and Zakai Zeigler. That’s a good sign for the depth of this team going forward, but Knecht still brings a certain level of scoring that nobody else on the roster can match.

So how does Rick Barnes get Knecht reignited? That begins with adjusting to the level of competition, especially now with several games on tape for opponents to study.

“Going have to adjust,” Barnes said after the NC State win. “Totally different level than he is ever played at. And he will. But he’s seeing some things that he’s never seen before and he’s going to see where teams are going to try to get physical with him as teams have done the last couple games. Then they try to heavy gap him. They got up there on ball screens and hit him hard, where he was predetermined what he was going to do before he got the ball. And that’s normally not what he does. But he’ll learn from it because he wants to.”

NC State played a physical brand of basketball across the board, and that really seemed to bother Knecht. He was pressing at times, particularly during a sequence in the second half. A turnover on a drive was followed by Knecht getting blocked at the rim on the next possession, then he was beaten on the defensive end and ended up giving a bad foul to create three-point play. That was all part of a big run for NC State that allowed them to claw back into the game with under eight minutes to play.

It’s tough to blame Knecht for pressing — he’s been THE guy for this team during the opening month of the season. But every game isn’t the same, every team’s approach will be different.

“What he’s going to learn too, when he is not (scoring), he doesn’t have to press that hard on offense if he’ll guard, because these guys, they wanna get him ball,” Barnes continued. “They’ll get it to him where he needs it, as opposed to him thinking he’s got to create something with it every time it touches his hand.”

Knecht tied a record for most points scored by an opponent at the Dean E. Smith center last month, putting up 37 points in a loss to North Carolina. Since then, it’s been a bit of a struggle outside of a nice game against Illinois.

“We’re all hurting for him,” Barnes said. “We know we need Dalton and he’ll help us. But you know what? We also know you go through growing pains. As the season goes on and people start looking at analytics and scouting teams and go back and look.

“I know we’ve got a lot of respect for him, but sometimes you got to hit rock bottom like this and look around and know that, one, he’s got a great group with him that’s pulling for him and we know we need him. And they know and everyone knows it, but as we move forward, it’s about getting better.”

Tennessee has a light couple of weeks to reset ahead of SEC play, where they’ll need Knecht to come back to form. The good news though? Zakai Zeigler is starting to look like his old self again, and Josiah-Jordan James is playing at as high of a level as we’ve ever seen.

We still haven’t really seen all the pieces of the puzzle click together. If they do, Tennessee could likely beat anyone in the country. Barnes and his staff have a couple of weeks here and two home games to continue to iron things out before opening conference play against Ole Miss on January 6th.