Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht celebrates after scoring against Saint Peter's...

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht celebrates after scoring against Saint Peter's during the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: AP/Chris Carlson

DETROIT — Dalton Knecht didn't have a lot of choices to continue his basketball career coming out of Prairie View High School in Henderson, Colorado.

That didn't stop him from becoming a star at Tennessee.

“There are some people that are not the highest-rated players and stuff like that," Knecht said Thursday. “It just shows that you go a different route, going JuCo, hitting the transfer portal.”

Knecht did both.

Out of high school, he stayed in Colorado and took his raw talents about 120 miles away to Northeastern Junior College. Two years later, he landed a mid-major offer from Northern Colorado and led the Big Sky in scoring at 20.2 points per game a season ago.

Knecht bet on himself again and it paid off, transferring to Tennessee and earning a spot as a first-team AP All-American.

“No one could've projected what he's done,” Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said.

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (3) dunks the ball against Texas...

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (3) dunks the ball against Texas forward Dylan Disu (1) during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: AP/Mike Stewart

Knecht is the clear-cut star player for second-seeded Tennessee (26-8) and will draw a lot of attention from third-seeded Creighton (25-9) on Friday night in the Sweet 16.

The winner will face first-seeded Purdue or fifth-seeded Gonzaga in the Midwest Region final on Sunday with a Final Four bid at stake.

College basketball's showcase has been elusive for the Vols, whose longest run in the NCAA Tournament left them one win short of the Final Four in 2010 under coach Bruce Pearl. The past two years, Barnes' Vols have lost in the Sweet 16.

Tennessee, of course, did not have Knecht yet a year ago, and the team was also without lightning-quick point guard Zakai Zeigler due to a torn ligament.

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (3) loses the ball ahainmst Texas...

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (3) loses the ball ahainmst Texas forward Dillon Mitchell (23) during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: AP/Mike Stewart

Knecht is a difference-maker, whose ability to make 3-pointers, create off the dribble and dunk over defenders has made him a likely lottery pick in the NBA draft this summer.

The SEC Player of the Year averages 21.1 points — making 39% of his 3s — along with nearly five rebounds and two assists.

“I don’t know that you’d guard him with one guy,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “I think you have to give him different looks, and that’s the plan. Hopefully take away his easy ones because he’s going to make enough tough ones because he’s an elite player.”

Like Knecht, the Bluejays have a late-blooming star.

Baylor Scheierman took the only Division I offer he had at South Dakota State. He spent three years with the Jackrabbits before transferring two years ago to Creighton.

The 6-7 Scheierman, the first Division I men’s player in history to have at least 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 3-pointers, is a third-team AP All-American.

“Two years ago Dalton was at Northern Colorado and Baylor was at South Dakota State,” McDermott said. “Now you have a first-team All-American and a third-team All-American playing against each other in the Sweet 16, so an unbelievable story.”

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