Feb. 22, 2013
Dunbar Takes the Ball for Navy
By Matt Dougherty, Patriot League Assistant Executive Director for Communications
Note: The following story appears in the 2013 Patriot League Basketball Tournament program.
After going 3-26 overall and 0-14 in the Patriot League last season, a young Navy team had the task of bouncing back with a roster that includes no seniors.
On a team looking for a leader, a freshman came through to take the ball and lead the Mids back to respectability in 2012-13.
Tilman Dunbar, a 5-foot-10, 153-point point guard from Woodbrige, Va., burst on the scene to help the Mids to a 6-6 record early in the season and win four consecutive Patriot League Anaconda Rookie of the Week awards in December and January. He has been one of the Mids' top scorers all season, and ranks among the leaders in the Patriot League and all freshmen nationally in assists.
While it would seem overwhelming to have the keys to the offense as a freshman, playing at a high level was nothing new to Dunbar. His high school, Paul VI Catholic, finished No. 16 in the USA Today Super 25 last season after spending much of the year in the top 10. The team finished 35-3 and won the WCAC League Championship, the Virginia Independent Schools state title and a Washington, D.C. city title as Dunbar averaged 10.4 points, 7.2 assists and 3.1 steals per game. Along with Dunbar, four other players from the team have moved on to Division I programs.
"It was definitely fun, especially since when I got there we were not really that good," Dunbar said. "We built from scratch and it turned into a national program. Just the winning culture and being able to play some of the top schools and players in the country and finishing the season as one of the top teams in the country was the best part."
Now, Dunbar faces the same building challenge at Navy. Nearly all of the Mids' top scorers are freshmen and sophomores, and the team is learning to grow together and, Dunbar hopes, becoming better for it.
"We've become closer over the season on and off the court," he said. "At the beginning of the year there were so many new faces and we didn't really know how each other played or know each other's personalities. But now that we've spent more time together since the summer we are learning how to play as a group more game by game to know how we feel on the court and where people like the ball.
He also said, "The teams in the Patriot League are really good. But I still think our team has a good shot to get some wins under our belt and make a run heading into the postseason. I think we can compete with anybody in this league. Most of the great players are juniors and seniors so they know how to win, and we're still really learning how to win."
One of the highlights of the building process came on Jan. 20, when Navy went on the road in front of a capacity crowd in a nationally-televised game and knocked off Army 59-50 in West Point. Dunbar had six points, six rebounds and three assists on an off shooting night, but found a way to help the Mids break a 16-game Patriot League losing skid.
"The Army-Navy rivalry was real fun, especially seeing that atmosphere with two military academies going at it," he said. "There was so much tradition, and especially since we came out with the win it was a great experience and I'm glad I'm a part of it."
Dunbar chose to be a part of everything the Naval Academy offers because he felt at home with the school and the coaching staff, led by Head Coach Ed DeChellis.
"The coaching staff is really good and that really drew me in," he said. "The facilities and the campus are really beautiful and on top of that it's a great education and atmosphere overall. They teach you to become a leader with all of the military aspects so I just thought it was a perfect fit."
As a student, athlete and part of the Brigade of Midshipmen, the transition after high school has included more factors for Dunbar than most other freshmen.
"The hardest part is the travel during the week," he said. "In high school all of our games were on the weekend, and if we traveled during the week we were back the same night. So missing a day or two of school is the hardest challenge academically to stay on task and not fall behind in classes. I just try to get a good feel with the teachers and make sure I'm up to date on all of my work."
To top it all off, Dunbar's transition also featured something that very few college basketball players can say: starting at point guard as a freshman.
"It's a hard transition since the point guard has to be almost like the coach on the floor and has the most important job since the ball goes in my hands," he said. "I have the quickest learning curve because as the point guard goes the team goes. I have to limit my mistakes on the court to be as successful as possible. It was hard the first couple of months because of the change of speeds, but overall I think it has gone pretty well."
Dunbar believes the arduous task of starting at point guard as a freshmen has been eased by his help from the coaching staff.
"They've helped me grow in my game and helped all of us get better as a team day by day," he said. "I definitely feel like I have improved tremendously since I set foot on this campus and I wouldn't want to have any other coaching staff."
While the coaching staff is in its second year, and the team is mostly composed of players under the age of 21, Dunbar sees building blocks in place to be a contender in the Patriot League in his career.
"In school just to graduate is my first goal," he said. "But I want to win one or even two Patriot League championships and I think we can achieve that in the next couple of years."
While that climb will not be easy, Dunbar figures to hold the keys to Navy's success by having the ball in his hands.