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Evessa begin quest for fourth straight championship

by Ed Odeven

A year ago, Osaka Evessa fans, opponents and media members shared a common inquiry: Will Kensaku Tennichi’s team complete its quest for a three-peat?

We now know the answer, but have a similar question: Can the new-look Evessa pick up a fourth title in the fourth year of the bj-league?

“I really think we can do it,” Tennichi said. “I really think this group can get the championship.”

The Evessa begin their annual quest for a championship on Saturday against the expansion Shiga Lakestars in Otsu at Shiga Prefectural Gymnasium. Tipoff is 2 p.m.

Osaka fans grew accustomed to seeing the big-time contributions of heady point guard Matt Lottich and steady center Jeff Newton during the three championship teams. Both players have moved on to new challenges, with Lottich taking his all-around skills to the German League and Newton joining the rival Ryukyu Golden Kings in the offseason.

What’s more, Mikey Marshall, a gifted defender and smooth offensive performer, has opted to play ball in the Kuwait League this season.

Now Tennichi welcomes the challenge of infusing new talent and energy on his squad. But he’ll do so with the same demands of his players.

“I always do the same thing,” Tennichi said.

Such as?

Every year, he said, his players are required to focus on three primary things: defense, the fast break and getting the ball inside on in the halfcourt set.

Power forward Lynn Washington returns as Tennichi’s most visible and accomplished athlete, a winner of two MVP titles and three titles. Small forward Kazuya Hatano, a fellow three-time winner, and shooting guard Naoto Nakamura, one of the league’s top long-range shooters and member of the last two title teams, are back in the starting lineup as well.

Point guard Nile Murry has earned a spot in the starting lineup and quickly impressed Tennichi with his grasp of the team’s offensive concepts.

“He is very smart,” Tennichi said of Murry, who played for the Toyama Grouses in 2006-07 and Hungary last season. “I am kind of surprised with him.”

“At the first practice I explained our fast-break system to him. He got it, understood it, really quickly.”

Murry’s backup is Takanori Goya (see related story on The Japan Times’ Web site), who joined the team after two disappointing seasons with the Toyama Grouses. The No. 1 pick in the 2006 bj-league draft, Goya is adjusting to the demands of playing for Tennichi, who is a stickler for details.

“He’s struggling to understand the offense right now,” Tennichi said of Goya. “He’s (talented) c but he needs time, I think.”

With Hatano and Washington penciled in as starters, Tennichi will look to new center Eric Walton, who played for the Ryukyu Golden Kings last season, and Justen Naughton, a 205-cm forward who played in Spain last season.

Naughton, who holds dual American and Irish citizenship, plays on the Ireland national team. He came off the bench and provided a spark for the victorious Irish in a mid-September clash against Luxembourg, the Irish Independent reported.

“We’re very smart up front. We have a good group of players,” Tennichi said.

In the past two title runs, David Palmer and Marshall were utilized as the team’s sixth man. Both men provided instant offense and energy on the fast break.

Tennichi envisions a similar role for Arizona native Nick DeWitz this season. A former University of Oregon forward, DeWitz excelled in his first year in the league in 2007-08, helping carry the Sendai 89ers to the playoffs.

“I think we are going to use him in different places,” Tennichi said of DeWitz.

“He’s very versatile. He can rebound. He can score. He can pass. He can dribble. . . . I think he can make some big assists.”

Walton will miss the first two games of the season due to a nagging knee injury, meaning Naughton will be the starting center this weekend. That’ll give DeWitz a chance to play more minutes as well.

Guard Shota Konno, forward Ryuichi Horikawa and center Daishi Hayakawa will also vie for playing time.

As the team began preparations for defense of its title over the summer, Tennichi maintained a keep-it-simple approach. “Right now we have four or five set plays,” he said.

But, he added, the team has also been focusing on improving its fast break, its secondary break and learning the finer points of the team’s halfcourt offense.

“This is a big challenge for us,” Tennichi said, carefully choosing his words from his ever-expanding English vocabulary. “It is fun, too c because I always think about how to sell our system to the players.”

Perhaps the Oakland Raiders’ old slogan — Just win, baby — will best illustrate his example. Or he can do this: Show DVDs of the Evessa’s three championship seasons.

Either way, the players will understand his message.

IN THE PAINT: This season, the bj-league has instituted a new rule that states a team can play three non-Asian region players on the court at the same time. Previously, there was no limit on the number of foreign players on the court. Now, each team must have one Japanese player on the court at all times. In addition, teams can have four non-Japanese on the court, but one must be an Asian.

It’ll be interesting to see how different teams adapt to this new rule.

Most bj-league teams typically relied on starting three foreigners and two Japanese players.

It was an unwritten rule, but the established norm.