By DAVID HAYS
Lander Sports Information
GREENWOOD – Senior All-American basketball player Dwight Tolbert made such a big impression in his one year at Lander that he not only won the school's Male Athlete of the Year Award, he made an even bigger impression with two men who have been with Lander's basketball program since the beginning.
"There are two things that stick out that those guys said to me," Bearcats head coach Jeff Burkhamer said, referring to discussions about Tolbert with former Lander head coach Finis Horne and current Athletics Director Jeff May.
"They have seen every guy who has come through here (the Lander basketball program). Both of them think he is possibly the best player to have ever played here.
"Also, they said he did it in a fashion that isn't seen today where a lot of kids want to be flashy and if they make a dunk they are thumping their chest and pointing to the stands. Dwight didn't do any of that."
Horne started the program in 1968 and coached Lander for 28 years. The school's home court is named for him and he still regularly attends games. There isn't a Lander player that Horne hasn't seen.
May was one of Horne's earlier recruits, was an All-American at Lander in the 1970s, and has been around the program ever since, having been AD since 1997.
"Dwight was just a humble kid who played the game and did it quietly," Burkhamer said. "I was real proud of the way he handled himself on the floor even with all of his success."
Tolbert, a mass communications major from Tifton, Ga., received the M.V. Wells Award as the Male Athlete of the Year at Lander's 44th annual athletics banquet April 23.
Tolbert leaves Lander as one of the most decorated players in school history. The Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year was first in the league and fifth in the nation with 21.8 points per game. The 6-foot-5 wing also placed third in the PBC in three-point field goal percentage (43 percent).
Tolbert was named an NABC first-team All-American, NABC first-team All-Southeast Region, Basketball Times third-team All-American, Daktronics Southeast Region Player of the Year and played in the Reese's NCAA Division II All-Star game.
Despite all his success, Tolbert didn't come to Monday's banquet expecting to pick up such a major award.
"It was surprising to me," Tolbert said. "I really had no idea that I would get it. It feels good. I am just looking forward to seeing what happens in the future."
"I think he is very, very proud and excited to have won the award," Burkhamer said. "Talking to him afterwards last night, he had a big smile on his face and I think he was real thrilled to win the award."
Tolbert came to Lander as a transfer from Peach Belt rival Armstrong Atlantic State, where Burkhamer was the head coach through 2009. Even though Tolbert hadn't appeared in a college basketball game since March 2009, Burkhamer invited him to play his senior year at Lander.
The idea of recruiting Tolbert here was to raise Lander's level of play while giving him a chance to showcase his skills. After all, Tolbert wants a chance to play professional basketball.
Tolbert led Armstrong to a 23-7 record and an NCAA Tournament berth when he averaged 15.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 2008-09. A continuation of that kind of play at Lander would certainly put him in position to play professionally.
Despite the layoff, Tolbert continued his on-court success as he led the resurgent Bearcats to records of 18-9 overall and 11-7 in the Peach Belt. Predictably, he has since received several inquiries from agents and overseas coaches about playing professionally.
"I am just really proud of Dwight that he was able to accomplish the things that he accomplished in just one season, and to make a name for himself at Lander and to kind of help get our basketball program back on track," Burkhamer said. "It's a great testament to him and his will to be successful."
If being PBC Player of the Year and an All-American weren't enough, Tolbert proved himself yet again at the All-Star Game on March 23 at the Bank of Kentucky Center in Highland Heights, Ky., scoring 16 points in only 21 minutes of action.
Tolbert made six of 10 shots from the floor, including four of seven from 3-point range, helping his West All-Stars beat the East All-Stars.
"He's just an outstanding player," Burkhamer said. "He has an opportunity to go play overseas and make some money playing professionally. He has had quite a few inquires since the All-Star Game and since his All-American honors came out.
"I am just really proud for him because this is what he and I talked about (in the recruiting process). 'Let's give you 28 to 30 more times where folks can see you play and this may lead to some other opportunities for you because I know you want to play pro basketball.'
"And that's exactly what has happened," the coach added. "He has taken advantage of the opportunity and really played well. And now, hopefully, he will start seeing some results being able to play overseas."
Tolbert wasted no time being a productive player again, posting a double-double (18 points, 12 rebounds) in Lander's season-opener against Allen University, scoring 22 at Young Harris, and 31 at Francis Marion before the end of November.
Tolbert scored a season-high 34 points against Young Harris this season, one of five 30-plus games. He scored 24 points in the second half against Francis Marion in a come-from-behind Homecoming win, and had a fabulous return trip to Armstrong where he scored 22 points in a win over the Pirates. He scored 20 or more points in a game 18 times.
"It worked out better than I expected," Tolbert said of his return. "I didn't think I would accomplish so much in one year. I was surprised. We made changes during the season, trying to find team chemistry, and what the team could do. It was coming together toward the end. It was a little too late. But we still had a good season."
Since Lander's season ended, Tolbert got to enjoy the experience of playing in a college All-Star game for the first time.
"It was a fun experience being around the top players in the nation," he said. "They treat you like you are going to the NBA. You have a bunch of kids looking up to you. It was a great experience. You work in camps. You have a chance to give back (to the community)."
These days, Tolbert is working out, staying in shape, hoping to receive offers to play somewhere. Inquiries have come from Europe and China among many other places.
"There have been some people contacting me about the NBADL (NBA Development League) and playing overseas. I feel good about it. I think I have a chance to play ball at the next level," Tolbert said.
His preference is to play in an English speaking country.
"I would really like to play in England. I wouldn't have to deal with any kind of (foreign) language," he said, with a laugh. "I would really like to play over there."
Meanwhile, Tolbert has about a year and a half of college left and has options in his mass communications major. Burkhamer believes Tolbert will weigh all of his options post basketball career, whenever that time might come.
"I was just happy for him that he was able to get back into school, and do some more work academically, and then showcase his (basketball) skills," Burkhamer said.
"He did an unbelievable job at that. He got better and better as the year went. Some of that had to do with getting into shape and back into the condition that you have to be in to play at the college level versus playing pickup games.
"He was definitely the best player in the league (Peach Belt) this season," Burkhamer said. "He just loves basketball and he wants the opportunity to continue to play the game."