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Grouses get off to fast start after years of frustration

by Ed Odeven

Triple overtime wins give a team a healthy dose of confidence — and plenty of exhaustion, too.

For the Toyama Grouses, last Saturday’s 126-116, 3OT road triumph over the Rizing Fukuoka put them above the .500 mark, an unusual place for a franchise that entered the 2009-10 campaign with a 31-105 record in its three-year history.

“It was a great victory and a team effort for us to be able to get the win,” said Toyama’s first-year coach Charles Johnson. His team capped off the weekend with a 77-67 win on Sunday.

In the Saturday epic, forward Kirby Lemons supplied Herculean production at both ends of the floor, finishing with 42 points and 30 rebounds while playing all 55 minutes — an unforgettable game for any player.

Astonishingly enough, after the marathon contest had concluded the Grouses held an 83-50 rebounding edge.

It will be interesting to follow the progress of the Grouses (3-1) over the next several weeks to find out if the aforementioned 3OT victory was a harbinger of things to come or an aberration.

Dynamic duo: Now in his fourth year in Japan after three stellar seasons with the Takamatsu Five Arrows, Tokyo Apache point guard Rasheed Sparks has watched and participated in hundreds of bj-league games.

That makes him as qualified as anybody to speak about the potent one-two punch big men Nick Davis and Julius Ashby — both are listed as centers — give the Apache.

The 205-cm Ashby, another ex-Takamatsu player, and the 203-cm Davis work well together, according to Sparks citing their unselfishness, athleticism and hunger to win as keys to their success.

“Julius is a powerful player down low, a force in the paint,” Sparks said at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium on Sunday after his team’s 92-83 victory over the Saitama Broncos, a game in which Ashby had four dunks and was a forceful presence from start to finish.

“Nick is a finesse guy, but he has some power moves, too.”

Ashby is Tokyo’s No. 1 scorer (18.9 ppg), while Davis is a complementary point producer (9.1 ppg), a gifted passer for a big man and a never-back-down defender and shot-blocker, traits that Ashby has shown on defense, too.

Davis, now in his second season playing with Ashby, said the two, along with Sparks, have developed a comfort level playing with each other. “I think that’s helping us,” he said in Tokorozawa after greeting fans on Sunday.

In addition, Sparks said the Japanese core of the Apache roster, including longtime teammates Jumpei Nakama, Cohey Aoki and Shoji Nakanishi, provide stability for the franchise.

“I’ve just tried to come in here and play with these guys,” said Sparks, who’s averaging 17.0 points and 4.5 assists in four games.

After observing the Apache make back-to-back trips to the title game under former coach Joe Bryant, Sparks recognizes the innate skills this team possesses, saying it has a “higher basketball IQ” than many other teams he’s seen over the years.

Fan favorite: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Kyoto Hannaryz’s 40-year-old shooting guard, should expect to attract a high level of attention this season. An All-Star spot certainly doesn’t seem out of the question.

A scoring sensation during his two seasons at LSU and the No. 3 overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, Abdul-Rauf, previously known as Chris Jackson, is proving that he can still play solid basketball at an age when many athletes are enjoying their post-retirement years sitting on the sofa and watching games on TV.

Instead, Abdul-Rauf leads the expansion Hannaryz in minutes played (186) to go along with a team-best 18.5 ppg.

His shooting numbers are solid as well. He’s made 12-of-27 from 3-point range and is 35-for-66 from inside the 3-point arc. Furthermore, he remains a capable passer and takes care of the basketball (26 assists, nine turnovers).

“I remember him at LSU. He’s always been a really good player,” said Sparks with a smile. “(Even now), he’s in incredible shape.

“It’s really good for this league when you see that an ex-NBA player like him is still playing at a high level.”

According to Davis, Abdul-Rauf is helping bring positive attention to the bj-league, as the news spreads overseas and over the Internet about Kyoto’s games.

Roster upgrade: In recent weeks, following an 0-4 start, the Five Arrows have signed veteran big man Antoine Broxsie and point guard Michael Gardener.

Since then, they’ve added another import player, center Terrance Farley, who’s expected to make an instant impact for coach John Neumann’s club.

“He can run, jump and works very hard,” Neumann said. “He came from a great college program and he will help us a lot. We hope in three weeks to be playing good and the team to be ready” to compete at a high level for the remainder of the season.

Farley, 24, attended the University of Louisville, playing in the ultra-tough Big East Conference under one of the game’s greatest college coaches, Rick Pitino.

The 208-cm big center served as a valuable backup in college, earning praise from Pitino for his high-energy performance as a defender. The coach called him “a big-time shot-blocker.”

This weekend’s schedule is as follows: Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (5-1) vs. Sendai 89ers (6-0), Shiga Lakestars (6-2) vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows (1-5), Toyama Grouses (3-1) vs. Saitama Broncos (0-6), Oita HeatDevils (2-2) vs. Rizing Fukuoka (1-5), Ryukyu Golden Kings (2-2) vs. Kyoto Hannaryz (3-3).

The Tokyo Apache, Niigata Albirex BB and Osaka Evessa have the weekend off.

Rough beginning: With six losses in their first six games, the Broncos are already at the crossroads of their season. This weekend’s road trip against a confident Grouses squad could prove to be make-or-break time for Saitama bench boss Masato Fukushima’s team.

Fukushima had spent two-plus seasons as Toyama’s coach before being fired early last season. The Broncos also have four ex-Grouses on their current roster: guards Satoshi Yonemoto, Haruhito Shishito and Mario Jointer and forward Terrence Woodyard.

What the Broncos haven’t had is a consistent formula for starting or finishing games. Simply put, they’ve failed to do the little things well.

Exhibit A: 87 assists, 88 turnovers.

Exhibit B: 69-for-116 at the free-throw line.

What’s more, they’ve had little success from 3-point range (29-for-123), not giving opponents much incentive to apply extra pressure on perimeters shooters. As a result, this makes it harder for Saitama’s players to earn points in the paint.

League accolades: The Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week award goes to Lemons. His 30 rebounds on Saturday tied the league record set by Ryukyu center Jeff Newton and Sendai center Chris Holm last season. After his 42-point game in the 3OT opener, Lemons poured in 14 points and pulled down 21 boards on Sunday.

Helping his team win all six of its games to date, Sendai forward/center Gyno Pomare is the recipient of the league’s October MVP award. He averaged 18.7 ppg and 14.6 rpg through games of Sunday.

Pomare, a newcomer to the league this season, attended the University of San Diego. The 23-year-old has had double figures in scoring and rebounding in every game.

All-Star voting: Fan balloting begins on Saturday and runs through Dec. 14 for the 2009-10 All-Star Game.

Fans can cast their votes on the league’s Web site (bj-league.com) or on its mobile phone Web site (bj-league-ne.jp/r/as).

Voting instructions are as follows: Select two guards, two forwards and a center for the Eastern Conference and the same goes for the Western Conference — 10 players in total.

Final results are expected to be announced on Dec. 21.

This season’s All-Star Game, hosted by the 89ers, will be held on Jan. 31 in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture.