Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht plays during the first half of...

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht plays during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Columbia, Mo. Knecht is the AP All-SEC player of the year and newcomer of the year in balloting released Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Tennessee Volunteers have a history of underachieving in the NCAA Tournament under coach Rick Barnes.

The second-seeded Vols hope All-American Dalton Knecht can help change that.

For the first time in recent memory, the Vols have a big-time scorer to go to in crunch time in Knecht, a 6-foot-6 wing who comes into March Madness averaging 21.1 points per game and shooting 40% from beyond the arc.

“Obviously he would be a No. 1 target for a team getting ready to play us,” Barnes said. “... We need him to do what he does, but we need his teammates to do what they need to do to help him.”

Tennessee (24-9) hasn't advanced past the Sweet 16 in the past five tournaments despite never being lower than a No. 5 seed. The Vols have been knocked out every year by a lower seed.

Tennessee's first-round game Thursday comes against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Saint Peter's (19-13), a team that two years ago stunned the college basketball world by making a run to the Elite Eight as a No. 15 seed.

Peacocks coach Bashir Mason said Knecht's size makes him a difficult matchup for his smaller wings.

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht, top left, dunks past Kentucky guard...

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht, top left, dunks past Kentucky guard Adou Thiero, center,during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Knoxville, Tenn. Credit: AP/Wade Payne

“That kid always has his foot on the gas, and he’s trying to score, putting pressure on the defense," Mason said.

The game also features a matchup of half-brothers, with Tennessee's Zakai Zeigler facing Saint Peter's Armoni Zeigler.

POINT GUARD RIVALRY

Two of the nation's top point guards meet Thursday when Texas' Max Abmas and Colorado State's Isaiah Stevens clash in Charlotte.

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes yells to his players during...

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes yells to his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Knoxville, Tenn. Credit: AP/Wade Payne

Both are five-year starters, with Abmas amassing more than 3,100 points during his career, which included four years at Oral Roberts. Stevens is Colorado State’s all-time career leader in points (2,340) and assists (834).

“I don’t think it gets any better than what we have here,” Texas coach Rodney Terry said. “With the careers that they’ve had, people around the country need to know these two guys and that they had an impact on the college game.”

Abmas and Stevens both grew up in the Dallas area, competing against each other on the travel ball circuit and in high school. They've worked out together the past few summers as well.

“He’s an electric player,” Stevens said. “He’s been that way since he was young. It’s going to be really cool seeing how our journeys have crossed paths again.”

Stevens leans toward being a distributor, averaging 16.2 points and 7.3 assists per game for 10th-seeded Colorado State. Abmas' strength is his scoring, averaging 17.1 points per game while attempting 242 3-pointers for No. 7 seed Texas.

“He's like a Steph Curry in college basketball,” Rams coach Niko Medvid said. “They’re obviously a little bit different players that way. Isaiah is maybe a little bit more of a passer, but they both can do everything at an elite level.”

ANOTHER SHOT

Third-seeded Creighton has some unfinished business.

One year after just missing the Final Four, the Bluejays (23-9) are back in the NCAA Tournament boasting an experienced team that knows the razor-thin margins of March. They’ll open Thursday against Akron (24-10), the Mid-American Conference champion.

Last season, Creighton got to the Elite Eight before losing 57-56 to San Diego State, which clinched the win on a free throw with 1.2 seconds left.

Bluejays coach Doug McDermott said that experience was a painful reminder that every moment is precious.

“We all talk about it, but when you’re one possession away from the Final Four and you don’t get there, it really hits you square in the face," McDermott said. "So that’s kind of been our mantra since we’ve started the season — this possession matters.”

Creighton already has been jolted this March, losing to Providence in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.

"When you have a shock like that, it reinforces that any game could be your last if you’re not careful,” said Ryan Kalkbrenner, who will go up against Akron’s Enrique Freeman, the nation’s leading rebounder. “We got an older group, one that understands the stakes this time of year.

“So we’re really locked in and we know what we gotta do to play a long time like we want to do this time.”

HE GOT GAME(COCKS)

South Carolina was picked to finish last in the SEC this season. Second-year coach Lamont Paris and his Gamecocks enjoy proving people wrong.

With a handful of transfers and some fearless returning players, Paris has his team believing it belongs.

It’s a quick turnaround for a program that went 11-21 a year ago and hasn’t been in the field since 2017, when South Carolina made the Final Four. The No. 6 seed Gamecocks face 11th-seeded Oregon on Thursday.

Paris, who recently got a contract extension that will keep him at the school through 2030, has endeared himself to his players with a style that matches his personality — cool and controlled.

“He’s just a great coach, and off the court he’s a regular guy,” Meechie Johnson said. “You see him walking in with his Taco Bell bag and Starbucks coffee in the morning. He just watches film all day. Basketball is what he loves and he studies it.

“I call him a doctor of the game. He really knows the game and he makes it simple for you."

NEEDING EACH OTHER

No. 12 seed McNeese State needed Will Wade, and Wade needed McNeese.

“We’re all kind of a mishmash group and came together pretty quick because of a common thread — we all need each other,” said Wade, who missed the first 10 games of his first season with the Cowboys because of an NCAA suspension.

Wade led LSU back to prominence, including a Sweet 16 in 2019, before he was fired in 2022 after FBI and NCAA investigations related to recruiting violations.

“We’re never short for excitement on our roller coaster,” Wade said with a laugh. “But to have this magical and special season that we’ve had, I’d say it’s all a net positive.”

McNeese went 30-3, won the Southland Conference and now faces fourth-seeded Gonzaga, which has been to the Sweet 16 in eight straight NCAA Tournaments.

“Getting here with this group, everything our community has been through, our school, is absolutely as good as it gets for us,” Wade said. “I hadn’t even contemplated winning a game, but it would certainly ratchet up the accomplishment.”

Wade has his team believing anything is possible, even against Gonzaga.

“He believes in us and we believe in him,” Christian Shumate said. "With that trust factor, we go harder for each other."

JONESING TO RETURN

Samford guard Rylan Jones returns to Utah in a much better spot than when he left. The senior, who played four seasons at Utah and Utah State, is fully healthy and has made the most of a second chance at basketball.

Jones helped lead the No. 13 seed Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament since 2000, where they’ll face fourth-seeded Kansas on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Jones is averaging 9.4 points, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game while leading the Southern Conference with a 3.24 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“I’ve been around a lot of point guards. I’ve played that position. I’m hard on that position,” Samford coach Bucky McMillan said. “Half the time, at a timeout, I pull him aside and ask him what he wants to run here. He’s just a true coach on the floor.”

Jones almost didn’t have a final season with the Bulldogs.

Injuries plagued Jones while at Utah and Utah State. He played in 17 games as a sophomore with the Utes and 13 games with the Aggies a year ago before a concussion ended his season in January and threatened his basketball career.

Jones sought a second opinion and, when he got cleared to play again, entered his name in the transfer portal and connected with McMillan.

“I knew I was playing basketball again,” Jones said. “It was not at Utah State but after being cleared by multiple neurologists and doctors, I was going to play basketball again. I’m just happy that Samford came calling.”

___

AP Sports Writers Tom Withers and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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