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Veteran leadership makes Fukuoka favorite over Kyoto

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Rizing Fukuoka and Kyoto Hannaryz renew their rivalry on Saturday in the Western Conference final at Ariake Colosseum. Tipoff is set for 2:10 p.m.

The winner will book a spot in the final for the first time, and face the Niigata Albirex BB-Yokohama B-Corsairs victor in the bj-league’s eighth championship game on Sunday.

Fukuoka has made one Final Four appearance, as an expansion team in 2008, when there were 10 teams in the league and John Neumann was at the helm.

Kyoto advanced to its first Final Four last May, finishing fourth overall.

The second-seeded Rizing (36-18) and fifth-seeded Hannaryz (33-24) both have veteran-dominated rosters, with several key players being recognized as league standouts for years.

The Rizing’s Julius Ashby and Reggie Warren, started for the Takamatsu Five Arrows on the team’s championship runnerup 2006-07 squad, and Kyoto’s Yu Okada was a major contributor as a perimeter scorer on that team. Ashby also starred for the Tokyo Apache during the team’s back-to-back runnerup finishes in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

Hannaryz forward David Palmer, the 2006-07 league MVP, tops the chart with five title game appearances, winning a pair and losing one with the Osaka Evessa and playing in two more for the Ryukyu Golden Kings, including last season’s title triumph.

In the regular season, Fukuoka won three of four games against Kyoto. Rizing coach Atsushi Kanazawa’s team handed the Hannaryz 92-84 and 79-77 losses on Oct. 27 and 28 during the season’s third week. When the teams squared off again on Jan. 26 and 27, the week after the All-Star Game, they were in midseason form and a pair of routs were the result, 95-71 for Fukuoka and 96-81 for Kyoto.

In analyzing the high-stakes showdown, Zeljko Pavlicevic, who coached the Shimane Susanoo Magic for three seasons (through last Sunday) is impressed with the experienced roster that Fukuoka assembled for this season.

“Fukuoka is a strong team, maybe the best one,” Pavlicevic told The Japan Times on Wednesday.

The combination of Ashby, Josh Peppers, Warren and Japanese mainstays Akitomo Takeno, Jun Nakanishi, a league player since 2005, and Masahiro Kano give Fukuoka “big experience in the bj-league,” Pavlicevic said. “And they have a good young coach. . . “

The Rizing have exhibited consistent poise throughout the season. They went 19-7 on the road, which tied Ryukyu for the best record away from home in 21-team league.

Four Fukuoka players — Nakanishi, Warren, Ashby and Peppers — all went to the free-throw line for 200 or more shots, and five dished out 100 or more assists, Takeno leading the way with 169.

The Rizing took care of the basketball, finishing with 837 assists and 624 turnovers — numbers that any coach would be pleased with.

Warren’s team-high 16.9 points and 12.6 rebounds per game highlight his overall impact on the game as a pace-setter for the club. The West Florida alum’s ability to step out and knock down the 3-point shot forces defenses to respect his outside game, and opens the lane for Peppers, Takeno, Nakanishi and others to create plays off the dribble, with Ashby often setting up shop in the low post. Though Ashby and Warren often switch spots when the team runs screens in the high post.

“If Warren can make 3-pointers, that is a big advantage (for Fukuoka),” Pavlicevic said only days after Warren made 5 of 8 3s in the Rizing’s two-game sweep over the Susanoo Magic.

Fukuoka’s high-scoring trio of Warren, Peppers and Ashby averaged a combined 47.2 ppg, and the team enters the Final Four with eight victories in its last 10 games.

Earning a trip to Ariake Colosseum was the result of team work, Ashby said.

“It just came down to our planning for the games and our will not to give up on every play,” Ashby said after last weekend’s triumphs.

For Kyoto coach Honoo Hamaguchi, this season has been a nonstop work in progress, molding a group of mostly newcomers, including Okada, Hayato Kantake, Masaharu Kataoka, Marcus Cousin, Gyno Pomare, into a cohesive, title-contending team.

When the regular season ended in late April, the Hannaryz had similar offensive numbers to the Rizing: four players with 100 or more assists and one with 96 (Jermaine Boyette). They also had almost the same number of assists (836) and turnovers (640) as cited above.

To Hamaguchi’s credit, the Hannaryz’s are a quality free-throw shooting team (76.3 percent).

“Kyoto is a very good team with NBA (experience) in Cousin, and David Palmer, I respect him,” Pavlicevic said. “Hamaguchi is a very good coach.”

Guards Kyosuke Setoyama and Sunao Murakami have played for the Hannaryz since the team’s inception in 2009 and provide leadership and perspective to augment the addition of many newcomers.

Kyoto is a disciplined team that knocked off the defending champion Golden Kings last weekend in Okinawa, recovering from a 90-60 Game 2 shellacking to beat the hosts 19-14 in the mini-game tiebreaker.

Cousin expects the Rizing to pose a big challenge for his club.

“We need to come out strong at the start of the game,” he said in a telephone interview after Wednesday afternoon’s practice.

“It’s only one game, so we cannot afford any letups,” Cousin added. “We need to limit turnovers and just come out as a team. If we do that, we have a good chance to win.”

The Ashby-Warren frontcourt combination, key reserves Justin Johnson and Peppers and a quality Japanese guard rotation make the Rizing a formidable foe, Cousin said, predicting, “I think it’ll be a close game . . . so we’ve just got to play smart.”

To put themselves in this position — two more wins are needed to capture the title — the Hannaryz have thrived as underdogs after their 0-8 start.

Perhaps Hamaguchi summed it up best after the mini-game: “I want to praise the players who fought.”

Nothing less than 40 minutes of intense competition will be expected on Saturday from both teams.