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Akita’s Gardener proving a formidable force once again

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

With identical 5-1 records, the upstart Akita Northern Happinets and expansion Chiba Jets square off four times over the next two weekends. It will be a strong early season test for both squads.

The Happinets have soared to the top of the 10-team Eastern Conference under 70-year-old coach Kazuo Nakamura’s steady guidance. Point guard Michael Gardener and power forward/center Stanley Ocitti played under Nakamura when he led the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, so two core players have an understanding of his style of play.

Forward Kazuhiro Shoji, whom Nakamura said will be the key on-the-court leader for Akita this season, remains a formidable shooter, coming off a weekend in which the 37-year-old knocked down nine 3-pointers against the Sendai 89ers and took home the league’s Player of the Week honors.

Gardener, comparable in style to Allen Iverson, is the catalyst of Akita’s quick-strike offense, averaging a team-high 19.5 points with 5.7 assists per game.

In a Wednesday interview with The Japan Times, Gardener said, “I feel the keys to our strong play have been our tenacity and defense, getting key stops when needed. Also, just shooting the 3 with confidence (and) balance.”

As a team, the Happinets have attempted a whopping 209 3-pointers in six games, and made 70 to date, including Gardener’s 22-for-59.

Without hesitation, Gardener, a Southeastern Louisiana University standout, stated that Shoji’s play has been invaluable to the Happinets.

“My guy Shoji has been big,” he said. “I played with him in Takamatsu. He’s a great leader and shooter. He’s a big part of our team. He plays with heart on both ends of the court.”

Sendai coach Bob Pierce called the 182-cm Gardener one of the top 10 players in bj-league history on Saturday. For Gardener, the desire to win is as big as a sumo wrestler’s appetite, and coming back to Japan for the 2010-11 season after playing in Germany last season has found him as hungry as ever to excel in Japan.

“A lot of people know what I’ve done and what I can do,” he said. “I’m always hungry to prove my doubters and my critics wrong. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

“We have some of the best fans in Japan. They deserve our best at all times.”

As for playing under Nakamura for a second time, Gardener said he’s comfortable with their relationship.

“He understands me,” Gardener said. “Also, he understands my talent. He brings the best out of everyone, maybe because you’re always being critiqued or maybe because you’re held accountable for everything. I mean everything. I don’t know. I just know you better bring your hard hat ever day.”

Jets coach Eric Gardow’s team, surprising everyone by earning a share of first place at this stage of the season, has a challenging road trip ahead this weekend, taking his team to basketball-crazed Akita for the first time. The Happinets will then visit Funabashi Arena in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 11-12.

Akita will get its first look at Chiba’s rotation on Saturday. Newcomers Maurice Hargrow, Jamel Staten and Gaston Moliva have provided big production at both ends of the floor.

Reliable veteran George Leach adds stability to the post, while Takaki Ishida, Tomoya Nakamura, Kensuke Tanaka, Hiroki Sato, Reina Itakura, Shota Isshiki, among others, have stepped in and made noticeable contributions over the season’s first month.

Though the Happinets haven’t faced Gardow’s club in the regular season, Gardener said his team hasn’t made any drastic changes to its normal practice routine this week.

“I feel preparation is the same because we all have the same goal, which is to win the game,” said Gardener, a former Fukuoka, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa and Takamatsu standout. “From a personal standpoint, I like facing a team we haven’t faced or are unfamiliar with.”

Vlaikidis speaks out: Two days after his team’s first-ever victory, Iwate coach Vlasios Vlaikidis spoke to The Japan Times about the team’s progress and its development with one month of games now in the books.

The Big Bulls played four of their first six games on the road and travel to face the Toyama Grouses this weekend before returning home to face the Shinshu Brave Warriors on Nov. 12-13.

Is having six of its first eight games outside of Iwate Prefecture a sour point for Vlaikidis?

“We must adapt ourselves to traveling and long traveling,” he said Tuesday by telephone from Morioka. “But this is the case for every team. Maybe it’s good for the players in the beginning (of the season).

“But also, we have to adapt ourselves to the bj-league, and every team has the same conditions. Nothing special for us.”

Forward Thomas Kennedy is the team’s top scorer (16.0 ppg), second-year pro guard Makoto Sawaguchi, who played for the Akita Northern Happinets last season, is second at 13.7 ppg. Yoshiaki Yamamoto and Tasuku Namizato are the top two passers with 15 and 14 assists, respectively

The Bulls’ offense is beginning to take shape, but it’s too early to make a thorough evaluation.

“We need this experience for us,” Vlaikidis said, adding that the team’s on-court communication has improved and different players are stepping up to shoulder the offensive load.

“We need games, but we will be better and better,” he added.

In each of their first three series — against the visiting Sendai 89ers (Oct. 8-9), the host Happinets (Oct. 22-23) and host Broncos (last weekend) — Vlaikidis’ squad allowed fewer points in the second game of the series. He points to the team’s emphasis on defense as a factor for this trend.

Sendai defeated Iwate 77-58 and 74-64. Akita topped Iwate 95-75 and 76-65. Saitama beat Iwate 100-85 before the Big Bulls bounced back for their first triumph.

Against the Broncos, who rely on major contributions from point guard Kenny Satterfield and explosive scorer John “Helicopter” Humphrey, Vlaikdis challenged his players to improve their defense in the series’ second game.

“We made 85 points on Saturday and we lost,” the Greek coach said. “This is a signal that we didn’t play good defense.”

On Sunday, however, “we played very good defense and we minimized their points.”

Forward Sean Coleman’s defense was strong on Sunday, according to Vlaikidis. Overall, he said, the team’s defense in the first 25 minutes set the tone for the victory.

At point guard, Namizato and Yamamoto are learning to play in Vlaikidis’ system, and both have had up-and-down seasons to date. The coach said a lack of experience is the main reason for their inconsistent play, but he acknowledged both are “very important players for us.”

Iwate forward Shawn Malloy is the team’s top rebounder (42 boards).

“He’s a really good rebounder and a strong player under the basket,” Vlaikidis said of Malloy. “The other guys try to help him with rebounds.”

These days, rebounding drills are a part of Vlaikidis’ teachings. The mission? He’s trying to make his players better rebounders.

“The thing for rebounding is to have the feeling for the all,” he said.

There are no quick remedies to transform a first-year franchise into a championship contender. Instead, Vlaikidis insisted, this is the proper approach: “We must keep working. This is the secret of our development. As we work, the results will come.”

He added: “We need time to get to this satisfied level and to keep this level.”

Some coaches say they want to win a certain number of games. Vlaikidis thinks differently.

“I have no win-loss target in mind,” he said. “We see every game separately and every game is different, and for sure we need some wins. We need to win some games and this will give
us more confidence now.”

Weekly accolade: Akita forward Kazuhiro Shoji, who spent four seasons with the Saitama Broncos and one with the Takamatsu Five Arrows before joining the then-expansion Northern Happinets in 2010, is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, the league announced on Tuesday.

The 37-year-old Shoji scored 12 points, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range, in Akita’s 80-71 win over the host Sendai 89ers on Saturday. He had a game-high 23 points and sank 6 of 9 3-point attempts in the Happinets’ Sunday win.

Coincidentally, the first three weekly MVPs this season — Sendai forward Johnny Dukes, Shiga point guard Shinya Ogawa and Shoji — have all been previously coached by 89ers bench boss Bob Pierce.

Stat leaders: Through Sunday, Oita’s Wendell White is the league’s leading scorer (23.3 ppg), No. 2 is Chiba’s Maurice Hargrow (22.0) and third is three-time-reigning scoring champ Michael Parker of Shimane (22.0), followed by Fukuoka newcomer Kevin Palmer (21.2) and Saitama’s John Flowers (21.0). Two-time MVP Lynn Washington of Osaka is sixth (20.5) and Shinshu forward Lee Roberts is seventh (19.7).

Satterfield, a former NBA point guard, leads all players in assists (7.5 per game). Shimane’s Edward Yamamoto is No. 2 (7.3) and Gardener is third (5.7).

Niigata big man Chris Holm is the top rebounder (12.5 per game), followed by Roberts (11.8) and Akita’s Stanley Ocitti and Kyoto’s Rick Rickert (11.0).

Chiba’s Jamel Staten is No. 1 in steals (3.2 per game), Ryukyu newcomer Reggie Okosa is No. 2 (2.5) and Yokohama’s Marcus Simmons is third (2.2).

Osaka’s Lawrence Blackledge leads all players in blocked shots (4.0 per game). Shimane’s Jeral Davis is second (3.3) and Shinshu’s Tyler Hughes is third (2.2). Osaka’s Wayne Marshall is fourth (1.8).

Shinshu’s Derek Raivio is tops in 3-point shooting accuracy (52.6 percent), Fukuoka’s Akitomo Takeno is No. 2 (52.0) and Shoji is third (51.7).

Yamamoto tops the free-throw shooting charts (100 percent on 11-for-11 shooting) and perennial shooting wizard Cohey Aoki of the Evessa checks in at No. 2 (94.1).

Dukes has played a league-high 221 minutes, while Simmons and Ryukyu’s Jeff Newton are next with 218 apiece.

On the move: High-scoring Ricky Woods, a Southeastern Louisiana product, is poised to join Akita on Monday, sources told The Japan Times. Woods played for the Oita HeatDevils two seasons ago, scoring 44 and 40 points in back-to-back games in January 2010. He also had a then-league record of 52 points a month later. (Michael Parker scored 53 points last season to break Woods’ record.) Woods’ arrival will mean that the Happinets will probably cut one foreign player.

Ishizaki update: Former Shimane point guard Takumi Ishizaki is averaging 12.6 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals through seven games for the BV Chemnitz 99 of the German ProA League. The squad is 3-4 as of press time.

Upcoming games: Yokohama and Niigata completed a two-game series on Thursday. This weekend features 18 team in action: Akita vs. Chiba, Toyama vs. Iwate, Shinshu vs. Sendai, Saitama vs. Ryukyu, Hamamatsu vs. Yokohama, Shiga vs. Shimane, Kyoto vs. Osaka, Oita vs. Fukuoka and Takamatsu vs. Miyazaki (two winless clubs).

Wacky schedule: After four games in five games, the expansion B-Corsairs, led by first-year coach Reggie Geary, will be idle until Nov. 22, when they play host to the Brave Warriors in the first game of a midweek series. After that series concludes, Yokohama will have no games until Dec. 2, a road contest against the HeatDevils.

Around the league: Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic was handed a one-game suspension for criticizing the officiating after Sunday’s game against the Evessa. The ban will be served on Saturday. … Did you know?: Through Sunday, Ryuku’s Narito Namizato is the top Japanese scorer in the league, averaging 14.5 ppg (28th overall). The next 10: Niigata’s Kimitake Sato (14.0 ppg, 33rd), Sawaguchi (13.7, 37th), Shiga’s Yu Okada (12.5, 41st), Toyama’s Masashi Joho (12.0, 43rd), Fukuoka’s Akitomo Takeno and Miyazaki’s Taishiro Shimizu (11.7, 45th), Shoji (10.8, 50th), Yokohama’s Kenji Yamada (10.8, 53rd), Osaka’s Cohey Aoki (10.5, 55th) and Shinshu’s Takato Saito (10.3, 57th). …

Changes in Miyazaki: Shining Suns general manager Shinya Miyamoto has resigned, the team announced on Tuesday. His replacement is Shunsaku Kamada. According to a team spokesman reached by The Japan Times on Tuesday, Miyamoto’s decision was a complete surprise. The second-year franchise, off to an 0-6 start, has been plagued by poor attendance.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp