ANNAPOLIS | Tilman Dunbar was the last man back to the Navy locker room Wednesday night, delayed by a series of requests he was more than happy to oblige.
Stop and take a photo with a young fan? Sure. Give a few high fives to some lingering fans in the corner? Absolutely. Exchange pleasantries with fans perched behind the Midshipmen’s bench at Alumni Hall? No problem.
For those wondering how long it would take Dunbar to become the point guard —- and maybe even the face —- of the precocious Mids, the answer is in. Try three games spread over less than a week.
Dunbar’s 16-point, 11-assist shredding of Binghamton in a 75-52 rout solidifies what seemed clear even in defeat Sunday against Siena. The Mids are Dunbar’s team, and they will probably rise and fall throughout the season on the merits of their quicksilver point guard.
“I’m very —- what’s the word? —- hard on him in practice, because I understand how important that position is,” Navy coach Ed DeChellis said. “I’ve always had very good point guards … He’s very, very important to us. As a young guy, my job is to make sure he’s as focused as he possibly can be.”
Dunbar’s attention was very much on the winless Bearcats, one of the few Division I teams who managed even fewer victories than Navy did a year ago. And while Navy (2-1) is showing signs of growth, Binghamton (0-3) is quite clearly just starting its rebuild under new coach Tommy Dempsey.
“He was just facilitating, creating. He drove us nuts tonight. …,” Dempsey said. “He makes a big difference. Going forward, I think they’ll have a better year because of him.”
Dunbar influenced more than a few first-time-in-seemingly-forever developments for the Mids on Wednesday. First victory over a Division I team since last Nov. 27. First time surpassing 70 points against D-I foe since last season’s opener. First double-digit halftime edge on a Division I opponent since February 2011.
And, in what was eye-popping for anyone who watched Navy slog through a 3-26 campaign last year, the largest margin of victory against a Division I opponent since February 2009.
Dunbar offered an individual first-in-a-while figure as well, his assist total matching a Navy freshman record last achieved in 1995. That wasn’t what he came to Navy to do, per se, but providing a jolt of enthusiasm surely was.
“Coming into a situation, like I said earlier, that struggled last year a lot and seeing guys so excited to win games they lost last year, I’m glad I could be a part of that,” Dunbar said.
It wasn’t a small part. Between his own scoring and his assists, he factored into 40 of the Mids’ 75 points. It allowed for a balanced first half for Navy before finding ways to further break down the Bearcats after the break.
He did so largely through penetrating the lane and then finding an available man. Dunbar’s speed more than makes up for his slight frame (5-foot-10, 153 pounds), and in two straight games he’s exploited his most valuable skill to fluster an opponent with some size.
“I knew I could get by my defender, so I wasn’t really worried about that,” Dunbar said. “I was worried about drawing a second defender and finding my teammates open on the side. That’s pretty much what I was trying to get accomplished.”
Consider it done, much to the delight of a crowd so modest a fan on one side of the court bickered with one on the other about the whistle-happy officiating in the second half.
No, there weren’t a ton of people at Alumni Hall to watch Dunbar first carve up Binghamton and then stop and oblige requests from anyone who tried to capture his attention after the game before sprinting to the locker room.
It was a good time, the sort Dunbar appears more than content to appreciate. This was what he wanted, the chance to play as a freshman, the chance to make a difference.
In effect, it is a chance to make an imprint on a program instantaneously. Dunbar keeps running and keeps grinning, and if he keeps it up the go-with-the-flow plebe could soon be completely synonymous with Navy basketball.
“It’s a good quality that he’s smiling a lot,” DeChellis said. “The great players smile because they have confidence in what they’re doing. Guys that don’t smile, who are stone-faced all the time, they’re unsure of themselves, I think. Guys that do smile, that have a good sense of humor, they know what they’re doing.”
—- Patrick Stevens