Perennial powers square off for JBL title

by Kaz Nagatsuka

The Toyota Motors Alvark and Aisin Sea Horses are perennial powerhouses in the JBL, and as most people anticipated, the familiar names are the last teams standing.

The two clubs crash into the new-look JBL’s best-of-five championship series, which tips off on Thursday at Yoyogi Gymnasium Annex.

The Sea Horses (26-9, first in the regular season) were 5-1 against the Alvark (21-14, second) in the regular season and they defeated the same opponent in the All-Japan Championships final in January.

For Toyota, its lone win against Aisin came in the teams’ final meeting in the regular season. The Alvark, however, enter the JBL Finals with a six-game winning streak, including the playoff semifinals, where it swept OSG Phoenix, which joins the bj-league next season.

“With our veteran players having regained their vigor and our young players’ growth, I feel our team’s strength has firmly gotten up,” Toyota coach Torsten Loibl said after the semifinals.

The Sea Horses completed a sweep of the the Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins in the semifinals.

The two are arguably the most complete teams in the league; both feature powerful but mobile foreign players inside, and rely heavily on aggressive defensive schemes which lead to their fast-tempo offenses.

The Alvark’s core players are forwards Charles O’Bannon (24.1 points per game, third in the league), Michael Takahashi and Takuma Watanabe, and guard Louis Campbell (6.1 assists per game).

But in terms of depth, Aisin clearly has the edge.

In addition to swift forwards Alpha Bangura (18.8 ppg) and James Maye and J.R. Sakuragi, a naturalized Japanese citizen formerly known as J.R. Henderson, the Sea Horses are loaded with talented Japanese players, such as MVP Shinsuke Kashiwagi (2.2 steals per game, third) and Kenichi Sako at the guard positions, and Tomoo Amino and rookie Kosuke Takeuchi (1.7 blocks per game, first; 9.7 rebounds per game, sixth) up front.

For both teams, the style of play is quite similar, and each game is expected to be a down-to-the-wire contest. The key will likely be on defense — which team can make the critical stops to secure the win.

“We have Sako and Kashiwagi, who are different types but capable guards, and it is really reassuring for us,” Aisin coach Kimikazu Suzuki said. “I think that having won the semifinals in an ideal way, we can come into the Finals pretty comfortably.”

Said Watanabe: “We weren’t compatible with Aisin in the regular season, but the Finals are different. The atmosphere is different as well, and we’d like to enter the series with confidence.”

JBL FINALS: Game 1 (2 p.m., Thursday); Game 2 (2 p.m., Saturday); Game 3 (2 p.m., Sunday); Game 4 (7 p.m., March 25, if necessary); and Game 5 (7 p.m., March 26, if necessary).