Knecht, Sears could put on a show in Vols-Tide showdown

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht celebrates a made 3-pointer during Tuesday night's 39-point performance in the 85-66 win over Florida.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht celebrates a made 3-pointer during Tuesday night's 39-point performance in the 85-66 win over Florida.

It may be cold outside, but Dalton Knecht is scorching inside.

Tennessee's graduate transfer guard from Northern Colorado has scored 103 points the past three games against Mississippi State, Georgia and Florida heading into Saturday's showdown (2 p.m. on ESPN2) against Alabama inside a sold-out Food City Center. Knecht's point production in this stretch for the No. 6 Volunteers has been enhanced by a sensational 13-of-23 shooting clip (56.5%) from 3-point range.

"He's been amazing," Vols junior forward Jonas Aidoo said Friday in a news conference. "I don't know how to put it into words. Y'all have seen it. He's like Larry Bird, for real."

Against the Crimson Tide, Knecht will face someone who has shot the ball even better this season.

"They're the No. 1 offense in the country, and Mark Sears is playing great basketball," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. They've got a lot of really good shooters around him, and the thing that has impressed me is how much better they've become on defense. They're very efficient with that, too."

Sears is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior guard from Muscle Shoals, but he left the state to play his first two seasons at Ohio University before transferring and starting all 37 games for last season's Tide, who were the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament but got bounced in the Sweet 16 by San Diego State.

  photo  Crimson Tide photos / Alabama guard Mark Sears enters Saturday afternoon's contest at Tennessee leading the Southeastern Conference with 19.6 points per game.

This season, Sears has made 43 of 90 attempts from 3-point range for a 47.8% success rate, and he leads the Southeastern Conference with 19.6 points per game. Knecht is averaging 18.5 points per contest, and his recent accuracy from beyond the arc has raised his season average to 41.7%.

"You've got to find him early, because he can take it and go," Barnes said of Sears. "He's scoring himself, but he finds people. He knows when he's got shooters in the corner, and he puts the ball where it needs to be."

Although Alabama is unranked despite its 12-5 overall record against a schedule as challenging as the one Tennessee has faced, the Tide are 4-0 in the SEC and tied with Auburn for the league lead. The Vols are 13-4 overall and 3-1 in conference play.

The Tide enter Saturday averaging 90.2 points a game, joining Kentucky (90.8), Arizona (90.6) and Samford (90.6) as the only Division I programs tallying at least 90 an outing. Tennessee, a program known more for its defense under Barnes, has scored 85 points in consecutive contests due to its 6-6, 213-pound newcomer who already has three games of 35-plus points.

Knecht's performance Tuesday night against the Gators contained not only a career-best 39 points but eight rebounds and only one turnover.

"He did some things the other night that we know he's capable of," Barnes said. "He got on the glass. He got the tip dunk, and he's definitely trying to guard. He's putting more effort into the defensive end of it. He's shown all year he can score in a lot of different ways, but he's been adding getting out in transition and getting to the offensive glass, and if he does his work early defensively, he's proven he can do it on that end, too.

"We don't expect 39 or 40 every night, but we expect him to take his shots when he's open."

Coming along

Tennessee opened its SEC schedule by using only eight players in a 90-64 drubbing of Ole Miss.

Redshirt freshman guard Freddie Dilione V then got into the mix against Mississippi State and Georgia, and in Tuesday night's win, freshman forward J.P. Estrella logged nine minutes with Dilione adding six.

"It's really neat watching them this time of year," Barnes said. "Sometimes it takes guys less time, and I would say it's normal for freshmen to maybe start understanding more about this time of year. We're just happy that those guys are showing the ability to prepare the right way."

Through the years

Alabama leads the series with Tennessee 82-71, with the teams having split the past eight meetings.

The Vols hold a 48-23 series advantage in games played in Knoxville.

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