During the past four years, Tilman Dunbar has provided the Navy men's basketball team with a steady hand at the point guard position. The 5-foot-10, 163-pound senior earned a starting role at the beginning of his freshman season and has helped to guide a dramatic improvement in the program's fortunes.
As he closes in on the end of his collegiate career, the Woodbridge, Va., native is propelling Navy to its best season in seven years. Dunbar is averaging 11.0 points, 3.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. He has assisted on 98 baskets while accruing 72 turnovers, marking the fourth consecutive season that his assist-to-turnover rate is on the plus side.
Dunbar's consistency has been instrumental for a Midshipmen team that will take an 18-10 overall record into their Feb. 20 rivalry game with visiting Army West Point. A 9-6 Patriot League mark and fourth-place conference standing has Navy in position to make a run at the league title.
While he has been instrumental in helping the Midshipmen accomplish their team goals, Dunbar has also reached a pair of individual milestones. During a 74-68 triumph at Lafayette Feb. 13, Dunbar became just the fourth player in Navy history to surpass the career landmarks of 1,000 points and 400 assists. He joined former Navy standouts Erik Harris, Kylor Whitaker and Rob Romaine as the only Midshipmen to accomplish the feat. Entering the matchup with Army, Dunbar ranks 23rd in Navy history with 1,016 points, and his 405 assists are good for seventh place on the school's career list.
"To be in the same category as those other three point guards is an honor," Dunbar said. "It helped that we got the win, as well."
Dunbar, who hails from the same hometown as Navy basketball legend David Robinson, came to Annapolis, Md., after a standout prep career at Paul VI Catholic. When Dunbar arrived, the Midshipmen had just endured a 3-26 season that included an 0-14 Patriot League finish. But the lure of the Academy was too much for Dunbar to pass up.
"My parents and I loved it here when I came to visit," he said. "It's a great academic institution with strong core values. It was a place where I could give back, to serve my country."
Navy won eight games during Dunbar's freshman season, when he was voted to the Patriot League's All-Rookie Team. The win total climbed to nine during the 2013-14 campaign, and Navy broke into double digits with a 13-19 record last season.
The 2015-16 Midshipmen have clinched the program's first winning season since the 2008-09 team finished at 19-11. The current Navy team is just two victories away from the school's first 20-win campaign in 16 years, when the 1999-2000 team posted a 23-6 record.
"Last year, we had some injuries to our key guys and couldn't reach our potential," Dunbar said. "Now, we have more depth. This season is a testament to how hard our guys have worked."
Dunbar has been a primary catalyst for a Navy team that has defied expectations. Following the graduations of career 1,000-point scorers Worth Smith and Brandon Venturini, the Midshipmen were expected to struggle on the offensive end. They were picked to finish last in the Patriot League's preseason poll.
But Navy has turned into a winner, especially on the road. The Midshipmen are 13-3 in road and neutral-site games this season.
"That success started at our tournament on Thanksgiving weekend in Greensboro (N.C.)," Dunbar said of Navy's title-winning performance at the Spartan Showcase. "One of my teammates, Tom Lacey, started calling us 'the road warriors'. We've had that fire the whole season."
While Dunbar has effectively run the Navy offense for the past four years, he has also learned about the value of off-court leadership during his time in Annapolis. He will take those lessons with him after graduation, when Dunbar begins his military career as a surface warfare officer on the USS Bataan, stationed in Norfolk, Va.
"Servant leadership has been one of the more important things that I've learned here," he said. "Serving the people that you lead helps those people want to follow you."
Before he departs Annapolis for Norfolk, Dunbar and his Navy teammates are preparing for a challenging postseason run. The Midshipmen have several opportunities to improve their seeding for the Patriot League tournament. Following their Feb. 20 clash with Army, the Midshipmen will visit American (Feb. 24) and host league-leading Bucknell (Feb. 27) in their regular-season finale.
"We were at the bottom of the Patriot League [when he came to Navy], and now we're in the top four," Dunbar said. "I feel there is no team that is better than us, and if we can focus on the task at hand, then we can win the championship. It's been great to watch the program grow and to be part of a team that could leave a lasting impression here."