You likely heard the announcement that Navy point guard Tilman Dunbar will miss the remainder of his sophomore season due to a violation of Naval Academy rules. Bill Wagner, the Capital Gazette beat writer for Navy, broke the news on Wednesday morning. While Dunbar won’t don a Navy basketball uniform through March, he’ll remain at the Naval Academy and be eligible to return to the team next season.
That’s great news for Ed DeChellis and his staff, but in the short-term it’s a big blow to a squad originally expected to make a respectable jump this season. DeChellis has had success rebuilding programs in the third season (see East Tennessee State, Penn State as examples), as have many good head coaches, but it appears this development could thwart Navy’s progress.
For starters, the Mids will be without their number one playmaker. Dunbar wasn’t a great outside shooter (though he had improved, going from 38.1% as a freshman to 43.8% this season), but he was a difficult player to contain when the ball was in his hands. His uncanny ability to dribble drive and create served as a critical part of Navy’s offense, especially given the high number of traditional perimeter shooters Dunbar is teammates with. Guards such as Kendall Knorr, Brandon Venturini and freshman Zach Fong, while very good shooters, aren’t great at generating open looks for themselves. Their utilization of off-the-ball screens and Dunbar’s dribble penetration allowed them to shoot jumpers with space in front of them.
Before their Patriot League showdown versus Bucknell last night, the Mids were taking 31.8% of their field goal attempts near the rim. The Division I average sits significantly higher at 38.3%. Quite simply, Navy doesn’t appear to have the personnel, even when Dunbar WAS playing 30 minutes per game, to consistency attack the rim. Even DeChellis acknowledged this after a disheartening loss to Army last Saturday afternoon.
“We’re not a team full of penetrators,” DeChellis said. “It’s just unfortunate, it’s who we are, it’s our DNA right now. We try to do what we can to get guys shots and the best way we can get guys shots. We didn’t get many broken floor baskets (versus Army). It was a half-court game and tonight that was more beneficial for (Army). They had some guys who dribble the ball, got fouled, and got to the line.”
For Navy to be successful, they’ll have to defend and rebound with the utmost tenacity, and for the most part, they have done a respectable job of that in league play prior to Wednesday night. After four conference games, three of them losses, the Mids were giving up 97.1 points per 100 possessions, a respectable figure good enough for third in the conference. They were grabbing loose balls off the glass marginally better than their conference rivals too, as they enjoyed an average rebounding margin per game of +3.75. If only Navy could find a way to manufacture points in the half-court.
On Wednesday evening versus Bucknell, a team that had defeated the Mids eight times in a row, Navy did something they weren’t accustomed to doing previously – they attacked the rim early and often. In all, the Mids registered 42 points in the paint, with 11 lay-ups (and a short Will Kelly jump hook) coming in the second half alone. It’s a good thing, since Navy was ice-cold from the perimeter during the same stretch, hitting only 2 of their 12 two-point and three-point jumpers. Without their newfound aggression, it was highly unlikely they would have held on to defeat the defending Patriot League champions.
In particular, junior Brandon Venturini was excellent at creating separation from his defender, as he racked up seven buckets near the rim with several of them coming in transition off Bison turnovers. He, along with Worth Smith and Kendall Knorr, combined to score 16 two-point field goals on 27 attempts. The team all together made 25 two-point field goals, a season high, and shot 52% from inside the arc, far surpassing their putrid season average of 42.4%. They may have only scored 0.90 points per possession in the victory, but it could have been far worse. Especially after going 2 of 12 from behind the arc.
Navy will need to continue this aggressive trend to enjoy any kind of success in the deep Patriot League. Sure, guys like Venturini could drop eight three-pointers in a game – like he did in a home win over Lafayette – and carry the Mids’ offense for an evening, but those performances aren’t terribly sustainable, I’d reckon. Instead, they must continue to force turnovers – they forced 18 Bison turnovers on Wednesday – and convert those fast break opportunities, while also attacking the rim when warranted. That philosophy is easier said than done – many of the Mids don’t possess the athleticism and explosion needed for shot creation, yet there are some candidates among the roster.
As an athletic stretch four, Worth Smith can certainly decrease his two-point jumper attempts. Currently, the forward is taking 49.4% of his shots as two-point jumpers and only 32.5% of his shots near the rim, an unusual percentage for someone of Smith’s skill set. After last night’s performance, Venturini and Knorr have shown they’re capable in certain situations to put the ball on the deck. And others such as freshman Mike Brown, who had a career high 15 points versus Army, and senior Thurgood Wynn can slash to the basket and thrive in transition.
Increasing their takes near the rim will only makes things easier for the sharpshooters as well as give Navy more free-throw opportunities; therefore, it’ll certainly behoove Navy to stop settling for long two-point jumpers. Wednesday evening was a nice step in the right direction for the Midshipmen, but it must continue for Navy to climb into the middle of the Patriot League pack. Relying on the less efficient two-point jumper likely won’t guide the Midshipmen back to respectability.
Ryan Peters covers the Patriot League for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride