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Questions abound as second half of season gets going

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Shimane Susanoo Magic big man Jeral Davis, whose non-selection for the Western Conference All-Star team was a stunning omission, is having another splendid season for coach Zeljko Pavlicevic’s team.

The product of little-known Talladega State in Alabama, is well on his way to his third consecutive shot-blocking title.

The 216-cm center is averaging a league-best 3.6 blocked shots and 14.5 points in 26 games, helping Shimane take a 17-9 record into the second half of the bj-league season after Sunday’s All-Star Game at Ariake Colosseum, where his teammate Michael Parker secured his second All-Star MVP Award.

The Susanoo Magic, sitting in third place in the Western Conference are one of 13 clubs in the 21-team circuit with .500 or better records entering the season’s second half, none better than reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings’ 20-4 mark.

Credit must go to astute team architect Tatsuro Kimura, the longtime team executive, and his staff for fielding an excellent team year after year. Barring an epic collapse, the Okinawa-based club will be in contention for a fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Ryukyu has not skipped a beat this season, placing terrific basketball under new coach Koto Toyama, an energetic mentor who turned 30 on Saturday and then promptly guided the Western Conference to a 128-119 victory over the Eastern Conference before an announced crowd of 8,718 that appeared quite smaller in the All-Star Game.

Other key story lines to follow in the season’s second half include:

■ How much of a difference will ex-NBA coach Bill Cartwright, who won three championship rings as a Chicago Bulls player and two more as a Phil Jackson assistant for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, make for the Osaka Evessa, who are 5-19 as he steps in the stoplight this weekend as the team’s fourth sideline supervisor in the past eight months?

■ And how will the 216-cm Cartwright’s presence in Japan elevate his team’s and the league’s status, if at all, in the coming months?

■ Can the Eastern Conference-leading Iwate Big Bulls reach the Final Four as a second-year franchise, doing the same thing the Golden Kings did when then-coach Dai Oketani guided Ryukyu to its first championship in 2008-09?

■ Can sixth man and star guard Draelon Burns, who’s having a sensational all-around season, guide the Yokohama B-Corsairs to a second straight Final Four?

■ Can the Saitama Broncos, buried at the bottom of the East with a 3-21 record, make steady improvement in the second half under embattled coach Tracy Williams?

■ Furthermore, can two-time scoring champ John “Helicopter” Humphrey, out for several weeks with a back injury, make a big impact in the second half? (Humphrey is expected to return to action this week.)

■ Will the Chiba Jets (12-12), playing a lame-duck season before bolting to the National Basketball League (the re-branded JBL) for 2013-14, produce a quality finish to their two-year stint in the bj-league?

■ Can bench boss Bob Pierce and the Sendai 89ers (9-15) rapidly climb into playoff contention with a rebuilt lineup that includes T.J Cummings, son of longtime NBA post player Terry, and recent acquisition Maurice Hargrow, who was the co-No.2 leading scorer for the Jets last season?

■ Will the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (19-9; playing their first season as a Western Conference team after dominating the East since 2008), energized by the savvy addition of ex-MVP Wendell White from the cash-strapped Oita HeatDevils, appear in the championship game for an unprecedented fourth straight year?

■ Will the new-look HeatDevils (9-17), losers of 13 straight games find a way to remain relevant and competitive in the season’s final months?

Rickert’s insight: Former Minnesota Timberwolves draft pick Rick Rickert, in his first season with the Osaka Evessa, said the Cartwright era has rejuvenated the franchise, which is languishing near the cellar of the Western Conference.

Cartwright ran his first practice on Tuesday, a day after he was introduced to the entire team. The Evessa are having by far their worst season ever. The three-time champion has never finished below .500 and never failed to qualify for the playoffs.

“Great practice yesterday,” tweeted Rickert, who’s averaging 13.9 points and 10.9 reboundsin 22 contests, on Wednesday afternoon. “This is such a positive direction for us. Bill has the experience to pull the team together.”

Upcoming games: Osaka plays host to Miyazaki (4-22) on Saturday and Sunday. In other two-game series this weekend, it is Fukuoka vs. Kyoto, Shinshu vs. Chiba, Akita vs. Iwate, Sendai vs. Tokyo, Gunma vs. Toyama, Saitama vs. Niigata, Shiga vs. Ryukyu, Oita vs. Takamatsu and Shimane vs. Hamamatsu.