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Vets have Shiga making strong bid for trip to Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Shiga Lakestars sit three games behind the first-place Ryukyu Golden Kings in the Western Conference standings, and the 17-9 club has demonstrated it has a legitimate shot at reaching the Final Four for the first time.

Led by veteran Julius Ashby, Ray Nixon, Josh Peppers, Dionisio Gomez, Takamichi Fujiwara, Yu Okada and Shinya Ogawa, the Lakestars have assembled a strong collection of talent in the frontcourt and the backcourt. The team is built to win now.

Alan Westover, a title-winning coach in Australia’s National Basketball League, has been a good fit for the franchise in his first season in charge.

“Coach Westover is a great Xs and Os coach, who brings the true meaning of a team to this organization,” said Peppers, who has helped the Rizing Fukuoka and Sendai 89ers reach the Final Four in past seasons. “He focuses more on the collective progress more so than the individual which helps us as players learn to play within a structure helping each other.”

In other words, there’s no confusion about what Westover wants and demands from his players. His message is clear, and his players have responded to that message.

“There’s a strong foundation in place for this being our main strength in the long run, and we all have a common goal and the same interest, playoffs/championship,” said Peppers, a Central Florida product brought to the bj-league in 2007 by the Rizing’s original sideline supervisor, John Neumann, a scoring maestro during his days at Ole Miss who later embarked on a coaching odyssey that took him to leagues spanning the globe.

“Coach’s system is something in my eyes that is new to the bj-league, a lot of structure and a more controlled way of playing, which is seen a lot in other leagues around the world.”

Are the Lakestars confident in their chances to book a spot in the Final Four at Ariake Colosseum in May?

Yes, Peppers said, but recognizes the need to push for small adjustments and overall improvement in the coming weeks.

“A lot of our losses can be stemmed back to mistakes we made,” Peppers said. “We are in the race and anything can happen. The key is stay together and continue to push harder defensively.”

The Western Conference’s star attractions include two-time MVP Lynn Washington (Osaka Evessa) and one-time winners in David Palmer (Ryukyu) and Jeff Newton (Ryukyu) and Oita’s Wendell White, for instance.

There’s also six-time All-Star Cohey Aoki, another Evessa standout, ex-NBA center Lance Allred (Kyoto Hannaryz) and Kyoto forward Rick Rickert, a former Minnesota Timberwolves draft pick, as well as three-time scoring champion Michael Parker (Shimane Susanoo Magic), Shimane shot-blocking stalwart Jeral Davis, Kevin Palmer (Rizing, No. 2 scorer in the league at 21.4) and Gary Hamilton, Fukuoka’s understated linchpin at macho forward (case in point: his 10 assists to complement a 12-rebound outing against the Miyazaki Shining Suns on Sunday). A number of dependable Japanese performers — Fukuoka’s Akitomo Takeno, Ryukyu’s Naoto Kosuge and Narito Namizato,

Miyazaki’s Taishiro Shimizu, among others, keep the competition fierce.

“There are a lot of great individual players on this side of the league,” Peppers pointed out, “but an individual can’t beat a team. That’s why I will continue to believe if we work harder on defense, which in the last few games we have done a great job, our structure will keep things right in the offensive end.”

Around the league: A pair of league sources said Shinshu Brave Warriors coach Motofumi Aoki is expected to fill the coaching vacancy for the expansion Tokyo team, which enters the league next season.

Aoki, who has his current first-year franchise in the playoff hunt at 11-15 through Sunday, was the 2006-07 Coach of the Year while guiding the then-expansion Five Arrows to a championship runnerup finish. The veteran bench boss also led the Tokyo Apache during the 2009-10 season after Joe Bryant’s contract expired.

In related news, Saitama Broncos standout John “Helicopter” Humphrey is poised to leave his current club and join the Tokyo team, according to hoop insiders.

Humphrey, a two-time scoring champion, starred for the now-defunct Apache during Bryant’s years in charge (2005-09). He returned to the bj-league this season.

Upcoming games: One series — Hamamatsu vs. Niigata — begins on Friday. Seven others are on the docket for Saturday and Sunday:

Yokohama vs. Akita, Sendai vs. Chiba, Saitama vs. Shimane, Oita vs. Kyoto, Miyazaki vs. Shiga, Takamatsu vs. Toyama, Fukuoka vs. Osaka and Ryukyu vs. Shinshu.

Jets woes: Scoring is a problem for the Chiba Jets. Coach Eric
Gardow’s first-year squad has two high-scoring players in Maurice
Hargrow (20.8 points per game, No. 3 in the league) and Jamel Staten
(19.8, fifth overall). After that, points are hard to come by for
Chiba, now 10-14 after a pair of lopsided losses to the Akita Northern
Happinets last weekend.

The Jets are averaging 75.6 ppg and allowing 81.4. That adds up to a
deficit on the scoreboard and a sub .500 record.

Center George Leach, expected to provide solid scoring, rebounding and
interior defense for the club, has been sidelined since an Achilles
injury on Nov. 6. Other players have been unable to fill the void on a
consistent basis.

Forward Reina Itakura is Chiba’s third-leading scorer (6.3 ppg) among
active players. As a team, Chiba is 175-for-612 on 3-point shots, and
shooting 42.2 from inside the arc and 62.4 percent at the free-throw
line.

Despite the team’s shortcomings, it remains a playoff contender, a
respectable feat for any newborn franchise.

Credit Staten, a power forward, for being a major factor in the team’s
success to date. In addition to his potent scoring, Staten is tied for
fourth in rebounds (10.5) and is tied for first in steals (3.0).

On more than one occasion, Gardow has said that Staten is the best
all-around player in the league, and Staten has shown he’s among the
league’s best on a consistent basis.

Staten, though, cannot do it all by himself. The fast, chaotic,
effective defense employed by the Happinets in Yachiyo, Chiba
Prefecture, caused the Jets to lose control of their offense. Chiba
had 24 turnovers in the opener and similar problems with the
basketball in the rematch on Saturday; Staten, in fact, was close to
an infamous type of quadruple double (15 points, 10 boards, 11
turnovers and nine assists).

Records can be deceiving: Though the Takamatsu Five Arrows have a
league-worst 1-25 record, not everyone in the league believes those
numbers are truly accurate.

“Takamatsu really is not that bad,” said one Western Conference player
who requested anonymity. “They are only lacking a legitimate All-Star,
American veteran who can lead those guys. They have the talent to win
some games, but all of their import guys are minor role players on any
other team.

“They need a solid, mature presence, who can handle their
personalities and lack of maturity and give them good guidance. If
they had (Osaka’s) Lynn Washington on their team, just one really
excellent and experienced player that all the others would listen to,
they would definitely be a .500 team. But as it stands they have no
leadership, and no experience to make the correct tough plays in
crucial possessions.

“They always hang for a bit, but then one costly play will lead into
another, and before they know it, they are down by double digits. I am
actually rooting for them, one because we want other teams to lose and
help us climb up the standings, obviously. But also, we as a league,
don’t want to see any teams folding.

“We only want to be growing, getting more fans, more teams, more
games, more enthusiasm for the sport in Japan.”

So how can the Five Arrows turn things around?

“Takamatsu needs to get one big investor, to bring in an experienced
import player, preferably stealing an already established player here
in Japan … then after that they need to get a fundamentally sound
coach, that can harness the personalities,” the veteran player said.

“Again, they are the best 1-25 team I have ever seen. They are just a
one player, and a few possessions shy of being a solid threat.”

Weekly accolade: The Oita HeatDevils won back-to-back games for only
the second time this season last weekend, sweeping the host Osaka
Evessa.

Point guard Naoto Takushi played a pivotal role in the wins,
contributing 13 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals in
the series opener and 12 points, five rebounds, three assists, three
steals and one blocked shot in the finale.

Takushi, a two-time Best Five selection, is the Lawson/Ponta Player of
the Week, the bj-league announced on Tuesday.

The well-traveled Takushi is seventh in the league in assists (4.8 per game).

Toyama Grouses All-Star Masashi Joho, who led all bj-league scorers
with 34 points on Sunday was an overlooked option by the league’s
publicity department. The Grouses swept the host Sendai 89ers to move
into fourth place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, putting Toyama in
its best position at this stage of the season in its history.

More HeatDevils talk: Center Taj Finger, who rejoined Oita last
weekend, made 14 of 20 shots from the field in the aforementioned
wins. He grabbed 18 rebounds and averaged 16.5 points over the two
games in 58 minutes.

Can the eighth-place HeatDevils (7-19) overtake the Miyazaki Shining
Suns (12-16) and Shimane Susanoo Magic (15-11) and climb into the
playoff picture?

That remains to be seen. The team will need to string together a
winning streak of some note to make it happen. Rookie head coach
Yukinori Suzuki’s club last won consecutive games on Nov. 29-30, a
pair of single-digit host victories over the Rizing Fukuoka.

“It might be too little, too late,” said one hoop observer, “but they
are a lot better with Taj.”

Oita began the season with Zach Atkinson as the main man in the
middle. He was released earlier this month.

Finger, a Stanford product, left the squad after the March 11
earthquake and tsunami, but was coaxed into coming back to play for
the Kyushu club.

Records can be deceiving: Though the Takamatsu Five Arrows have a
league-worst 1-25 record, not everyone in the league believes those
numbers are truly accurate.

“Takamatsu really is not that bad,” said one Western Conference player
who requested anonymity. “They are only lacking a legitimate All-Star,
American veteran who can lead those guys. They have the talent to win
some games, but all of their import guys are minor role players on any
other team.

“They need a solid, mature presence, who can handle their
personalities and lack of maturity and give them good guidance. If
they had (Osaka’s) Lynn Washington on their team, just one really
excellent and experienced player that all the others would listen to,
they would definitely be a .500 team. But as it stands they have no
leadership, and no experience to make the correct tough plays in
crucial possessions.

“They always hang for a bit, but then one costly play will lead into
another, and before they know it, they are down by double digits. I am
actually rooting for them, one because we want other teams to lose and
help us climb up the standings, obviously. But also, we as a league,
don’t want to see any teams folding.

“We only want to be growing, getting more fans, more teams, more
games, more enthusiasm for the sport in Japan.”

So how can the Five Arrows turn things around?

“Takamatsu needs to get one big investor, to bring in an experienced
import player, preferably stealing an already established player here
in Japan … then after that they need to get a fundamentally sound
coach, that can harness the personalities,” the veteran player said.

“Again, they are the best 1-25 team I have ever seen. They are just a
one player, and a few possessions shy of being a solid threat.”

Akita apologizes: During a news conference on Monday in Akita, the
Happinets, including team president Yuki Mizuno and coach Kazuo
Nakamura issued apologies, for the incident involving ex-player Curtis
Terry on Jan. 15. Terry was arrested for theft in the wee hours of the
morning after a convenience store clerk spotted him with three cans of
chuhai outside the store on his person.

The police, though, have dropped the case, according to an Akita news release.

Multiple attempts by The Japan Times to reach Terry for comment have
been unsuccessful.

“I am very sorry that the scandal of Curtis Terry who belonged to the
Akita Northern Happinets is an act which betrays your expectations,
the people of the prefecture, the boosters, partner companies and other
concerned individuals,” Mizuno said.

Nakamura said, “I would like to offer an apology to the boosters and
all of you from the bottom of my heart first of all on the occasion of
this scandal. I am very sorry to disappoint many of you.”

In an effort to prevent these types of incidents from happening and do
what it believes it must to safeguard its image, the bj-league issued
its own press release stating that a written apology from the team is
in order.

If a similar repeated offense occurs, a fine of ¥100 million could be
imposed by commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi.

League guidelines also state that the commissioner’s office has the
right to sanction a team’s participation in league games if
off-the-court problems repeatedly occur.

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