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Lakestars set to tip off against champ Evessa

by Ed Odeven

Halloween is three weeks away, but Lake Biwa-area basketball fans will receive an early October treat this year.

The Shiga Lakestars make their bj-league debut on Saturday in Otsu when they take on the visiting Osaka Evessa, who are vying for their fourth title in as many seasons. The game tips off at 2 p.m.

Also Saturday, the Ryukyu Golden Kings play host to the Rizing Fukuoka in this weekend’s other two-game series. The rest of the league’s 12 teams begin play next weekend.

For the expansion Lakestars, head coach Robert Pierce has a realistic outlook for the season.

“I think it’s too early to start talking about winning a championship,” Pierce correctly noted in a recent phone conversation.

But, he added, the team’s goals are “to be very competitive, be in the top four in the division and then be in the playoffs, and then anything can happen.”

Pierce, who has spent time on the JBL’s Hitachi Sunrockers’ coaching staff (1997-2001) and served as an Asian region scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers (2005-07), has build his first-year club with a mix of Japanese veterans and foreign players.

The Lakestars selected 200-cm forward Yosuke Machida with the No. 1 pick in May’s draft. He played for the Toshiba Brave Thunders from 2006-08, but received limited playing time.

In the preseason, Machida has demonstrated the ability to hit clutch 3-point shots, including against the South Korean army’s squad during a recent exhibition trip to the neighboring country. In another exhibition contest, Machida drained four 3s in the second half against the Toyama Grouses.

“His confidence is growing right now,” Pierce said of Machida. “It’s getting back to where it was when he was younger.”

Ex-Niigata Albirex BB point guard Takamichi Fujiwara, who played the most minutes of any Japanese player in the bj-league last season according to Pierce, has earned the starting job for Shiga.

“He’s durable and valuable,” Pierce said of Fujiwara. “For a new team to have a veteran point guard . . . that’s the most important thing we did maybe — to take care of that position.”

Shooting guard Bobby Nash, a 198-cm scoring ace from the University of Hawaii, who averaged 13.7 points per game for the Rainbows will also see major minutes in the backcourt.

Nash, the son of UH coach Bob Nash, brings solid hoop credentials to Shiga.

“He’ll do anything — defense, rebounds, pass the ball — and he’s got good size,” Pierce said of Nash. “He’s a basketball guy through and through.”

In the frontcourt, 213-cm center Ray Schafer earned the starting spot. A former University of Oregon starter in 2005-06, Schafer played only a handful of minutes as a senior.

“He’s a real young, exciting player,” Pierce said, calling him a “7-footer who can run the floor.”

“He has great energy and he’ll be really good for us,” the coach added.

Joining Schafer in the frontcourt is 208-cm performer Brayden Billbe, who attended American University, and former Cornell player Ryan Rourke, who has made All-Star teams in Portugal and Luxembourg during his previous professional stints.

The versatile 200-cm Rourke “is a steady player, a good shooter,” Pierce said. “He’s the consummate basketball player. There’s not much that he can’t do on the floor. He’s not a great athlete, but not bad. He’s kind of a throwback to . . . Larry Bird,” the coach added, paused and then said, “that’s too much of a comparison.”

Time will tell, of course, what comparisons Rourke receives in Japan.

Backup point guard Shinya Ogawa previously suited up for the Toyama Grouses.

Reserve center Hirotaka Sato has been described as “the strong player on the team” and as “a monster in the weight room” by Pierce. He won a pair of rings while playing for the Evessa.

An Seong Su, a 24-year-old South Korean, will also compete for minutes at forward.

In an overall assessment of the Lakestars, Pierce describes his team as one that will play with a chip on its shoulder, one that wants to prove itself from the get-go.

“We have quite a few players who had negative experiences last year,” the coach said, “not playing much, playing out of position.”

Yet together, the team has already formed a strong bond.

“We are good enough to win a playoff game and then get to the final four in Tokyo,” Pierce said. “That’s a realistic goal if we can stay healthy for the entire season.

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Editor’s note: Look for expanded bj-league preview coverage in upcoming editions, as well as some Web-only content.