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Tennessee, Dalton Knecht ‘don’t want this feeling ever again’ after SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dalton Knecht launched a 3-pointer from the right wing as he’s done so many times for Tennessee this season, and the tension rose inside Bridgestone Arena, which was filled with orange-clad fans ready to erupt during the Volunteers’ game vs. Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals on Friday. 

Buzz had been building as the Volunteers mounted a 10-0 run late in the second half, and a make from the SEC Player of the Year would have brought the SEC Tournament’s No. 1 seed within single digits for the first time since the first half.

It wasn’t meant to be.

The shot came up short, and as the rebound trickled away, Knecht and teammate Josiah-Jordan James nearly collided while attempting to save it from going out of bounds. Neither reached it in time. It was Mississippi State’s ball and Mississippi State’s day as the Bulldogs promptly extended the lead once again on their way to thrashing Tennessee 73-56.

Knecht collected the ball after the whistle blew and slammed it on the ground in frustration. The sound resonated as an arena filled mostly with Tennessee fans fell silent. They had been hoping their team’s postseason journey would begin in a much different fashion.

“We don’t want this feeling ever again,” Knecht said later.

After a Friday clunker against the Bulldogs and an 85-81 loss to Kentucky on Senior Day to conclude the regular season last Saturday, Tennessee is heading to Selection Sunday on its first two-game losing streak since November. Projected to land as a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history when the day began, the Vols are in danger of slipping to a No. 2 seed, according to CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm.

“They’re a physical team and they brought a lot of energy today,” Knecht said of the Bulldogs, who are now 2-0 against the Volunteers on the season and on the right side of the bubble after another Quad 1 victory. “We didn’t bring enough energy. So we know we’ve got to go out and be the more physical team and be the aggressors.” 

That’s what Tennessee has been for much of Rick Barnes’ nine-year coaching tenure: the more physical team and the aggressors. The philosophy has carried the program to perennial contender status in the SEC and a spot in the last five NCAA Tournaments, including a pair of Sweet 16s.

But there was hope that with Knecht adding a needed dose of offensive punch, this iteration of the Volunteers could be something even more. Tennessee has never made a Final Four but looked like a Final Four-caliber team on its way to winning the SEC regular season title.

Now, it must find its way once again as the jubilation of an outright conference title has quickly devolved into frustration for a program and coach known for struggling to win in the Big Dance.

“We don’t want to end up again feeling this way,” said fifth-year guard Santiago Vescovi. “We’ve just got to turn around our mindset and know what we’re playing for.”

The Volunteers modernized their style of play this season, quickening their offensive pace and often playing versatile wing Josiah-Jordan James at power forward instead of playing two traditional bigs together.

It’s a shift that has done wonders for Tennessee offensively and opened space for players like Knecht and shifty point guard Zakai Zeigler to thrive. It’s been the prescription the program needed, but it’s come with an occasional side effect that showed itself again in the SEC Tournament.

Mississippi State outscored Tennessee by a stunning 42-14 in the paint as the Bulldogs did what Purdue, Kansas and North Carolina were able to do in November and bullied the Vols inside.

“We felt like we had a little bit of a weight advantage,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said. “Try to get our back-down game, get Jimmy (Bell) and Tolu (Smith) going, get to the free-throw line while you’re trying to pound the ball inside.”

Has a Tennessee team that was disparaged by some for its overtly physical play in a second round NCAA Tournament win over Duke last season gone soft? That’s a stretch, considering the Vols still entered Friday ranked No. 3 in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com. But it’s apparent that the Vols have lost a touch of their physical edge in exchange for the sake of offensive improvement. 

When that offensive improvement is nowhere to be found — as was the case on Friday when Vols shot a season-worst 30.6% from the floor — the results can be alarming.

“We did not do a good job one-on-one defense,” Barnes said. “But there’s other teams that have played us the way they played us. They made up their mind they’re going to drive the ball at us. We’ve seen that all year with teams doing that. “Again, we just got really spaced out. Why? I can’t tell you. We harped on it so much. Every loss we’ve had this year, that’s been the case, where we have gotten away from our defensive principles and allowed teams to do what they wanted to do. We didn’t have an answer for it.”

There’s still a chance for Tennessee to write a different ending to this story. Two years ago, it won the SEC Tournament but was eliminated in the second round of the Big Dance. What happens in the NCAA Tournament isn’t always foreshadowed by what happens in the conference tournament.

The only times Barnes made a Final Four previously was in 2003 with Texas. That squad lost its Big 12 Tournament opener by 11 points to a Texas Tech squad that wound up in the NIT.

But the warning signs are flashing, and the reputation is established. The Vols and Barnes aren’t known for winning big this time of year, and there is work to be done if that’s going to change this season.

“It starts with the seniors, with me and Zakai, the guys that have been in that tournament,” junior guard Jamai Mashack said. “There’s no second chances from there. Whatever we need to fix, we’re going to get it fixed. We’re going to go from there and have ourselves a great March Madness.”

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