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Ryukyu star Newton set for seventh straight Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

This is arguably the most remarkable statistic in the bj-league’s seven-year history: Center Jeff Newton’s teams have advanced to the Final Four every season.

He’s the only player in league history with four championship rings and five championship game appearances — three with the Osaka Evessa and two more with his current club, the Ryukyu Golden Kings. So it’s no surprise that Newton’s legend has grown as the fledgling circuit expanded from six teams to 19 for the 2011-12 campaign.

Soft-spoken but possessing never-wavering confidence in his abilities, Newton, an Indiana University product, was schooled in the fundamentals of the game by legendary college coach Bob Knight. Those lessons have helped him become the ideal teammate.

“Jeff is the type of player that makes everyone around him better,” Golden Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “He knows the game like a coach, plays it hard and smart and that alone gets the respect not just of his teammates but of the coaching staff as well.

“We as coaches have the confidence we can put him in the game under any situation and he knows what to do. He’s such a great player. I have learned so much about the game just watching him at practice let alone the games, where he really excels.”

Newton’s excellence has been especially evident at Ariake Colosseum, annual site for the Final Four, including his 50-point gem against Osaka in the 2008-09 Western Conference final.

This year, Newton led Ryukyu to a league-best 39-13 record, and after defeating the Shiga Lakestars in the conference semifinals last weekend, the Golden Kings have returned to the Final Four for the fourth straight May.

The West’s third-place team, the Kyoto Hannaryz, making their first appearance at Ariake, will attempt to stop Ryukyu from reaching the final for the second straight year. Saturday’s tipoff is 6:10 p.m.

The Eastern Conference final, featuring the two-time reigning champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and the upstart Yokohama B-Corsairs, is scheduled to start at 2:10 p.m. Sunday’s championship game is slated for 5:10 p.m., preceded by the third-place game.

In Ryukyu’s inaugural season, the team posted a 10-34 record in 2007-08. Newton and Georgia Tech product Anthony McHenry, a lithe, high-rising forward, joined the Okinawa outfit for its second season under new coach Dai Oketani, whose contract with the Oita HeatDevils had expired. That laid the foundation for the team’s long-term success.

“McHenry has that same basketball IQ as Newton,” said Richardson, who has been a Ryukyu assistant since Oketani, now 34, was hired. “They are pretty much the same except they play just a little different position/role within the Kings. Mac is the energy that feeds the team and everyone feeds off him.”

Neither Newton, whose per-game averages are always around the double-double range, nor McHenry, a steady scorer, rebounder, shot blocker and defender, earned a spot on the Best Five team this season. (Without votes being disclosed by the league office, it’s impossible to gauge how much consideration the pair actually received for the prestigious honor.)

Above all, the one statistic that matters most — wins — is the Newton-McHenry partnership’s chief characteristic. Since they joined the Kings, the club’s record is 147-59 (71.3 winning percentage) during the regular season.

“All I can say is I don’t know how either one of these guys got overlooked in the voting for Best Five,” Richardson said. “Obviously there are many within the bj-league who really don’t know the game of basketball yet. Basketball is not always about the stats, it’s about playing the game as a team and making your teammates better.”

President/general manager Tatsuro Kimura has built a team that blends smoothly with the aforementioned duo’s talents. Sharpshooter David Palmer led the league in 3-point shooting (79-for-158, 50 percent), while the backcourt rotation of Tsubasa Yonamine, Narito Namizato, Yasufumi Takushi, Morihisa Yamauchi and Naoto Kosuge have settled in alongside bigs Dzaflo Larkai and Dillion Sneed.

A look at the Hannaryz: Entering the playoffs, Kyoto coach Honoo Hamaguchi, the Sendai 89ers leader from 2005-11, is the lone bench boss to be employed in that role during the league’s entire existence. He’s also the league’s active leader in wins (190-126 record in the regular season), but no titles to his credit. (Oketani took over in Oita after ex-NBA big man Jawann Oldham’s abbreviated stint in charge, and is the only other remaining coach who got his start in the league in 2005.)

The Hannaryz are the rare team in this league with three 211-cm big men: veterans Rick Rickert, Lance Allred and Babacar Camara.

The addition of Camara — he made his season debut on Christmas Eve — helped the Hannaryz bolster their depth and fine-tune their already solid rotation.

“We had our growing pains as all teams will with midseason roster shuffling. But having Babacar join the team proved very fortuitous when I missed a few weeks due to injuries this last half of the season,” Allred said. “Babacar did a great job of stepping up and keeping the pace, and the team did not lose rhythm. And yet, since I have returned and taken away some of his minutes, no one has been a bigger supporter of mine than Babacar. He has my back, at his own expense…”

Lee Cummard knocked down a tie-shattering 3-pointer with 1 second remaining in the mini-game tiebreaker against the host Evessa last Sunday to propel Kyoto to a win and a trip to Tokyo.

What’s more, the Hannaryz arrive here with the knowledge of their success against the Golden Kings in the regular season — three victories in four contests.

Why has Kyoto had success against the league’s top team?

“Mostly because we play the same way,” said Allred, the subject of this week’s One on One interview posted on The Japan Times website. “They have a deep bench and so do we. They are usually able to close out the other teams with less depth, but with us, all the players that come off the Hannaryz bench are just as dangerous as theirs, and so we have outlasted them.”

Looking ahead to Saturday’s marquee matchup, Allred predicted that “this game will simply come down to who makes the big shots.”

He added: “We are familiar with each other, have coaches with similar coaching styles, play deep benches, and are all very talented. And so with even matchups like this, it is going to come down to: who protects the rim the best from easy layups, who gets the most rebounds and then finally who pulls out the miracle shots, like Lee did against Osaka.”

The Hannaryz have improved from 17 to 28 to 34 wins in their three seasons, with veterans Naoto Nakamura, Kyosuke Setoyama, Taizo Kawabe, Yusuke Inoue and Sunao Murakami contributing to the team’s success along the way.

Hamamatsu-Yokohama breakdown: The Phoenix collected three wins in four contests against the B-Corsairs this season, but Yokohama has made major improvements in the past few months and emerged as the league’s hottest team down the stretch.

The B-Corsairs went 20-8 to close out the season and outlasted the visiting Akita Northern Happinets in a win-or-go-home tiebreaker last Friday. Power forward Justin Burrell, the regular-season MVP, was the tone-setter in the mini-game, carrying the scoring load on his big, broad shoulders.

Hamamatsu has greater depth than Yokohama, but both teams are playing with strong confidence and at a high level entering the season’s final weekend.

Indeed, championship experience is on the Phoenix’s side, and the addition of shot-blocking specialist Lawrence Blackledge was an upgrade to their roster.

The B-Corsairs’ well-documented transformation began with lead guard Draelon Burns joining the organization in February.

“Versatility on both sides of the ball has become one of our strongest points as the year has gone on,” Yokohama bench boss Reggie Geary, who earned the Coach of the Year award, said recently.

That versatility, he noted, has “really given us good flexibility to play inside and out and change up defenses.”

The B-Corsairs need Burrell to put points on the board, but Geary has astutely picked his spots to run plays for Burns, 215-cm center Chas McFarland, Marcus Simmons, Masayuki Kabaya, Kenji Yamada, Satoshi Hisayama, Taketo Aoki, Minoru Kimura and Pape Faye Mour.

Hamamatsu counters effectively with reigning MVP Jeffrey Parmer, Wayne Arnold and Jermaine Dixon playing starring roles, and Gyno Pomare and Blackledge making contributions alongside Shingo Okada, Masahiro Oguchi, Kenya Tomori, Atsuya Ota and Shoji Nakanishi.

The Phoenix can put points on the board in a hurry, but Geary’s commitment to defense may neutralize those aspirations.

I believe, like any coach, that we’re a collection of our experiences,” Geary said. “My experiences of having played in several different countries — Israel, France, Portugal, Argentina to name a few — and playing for a number of great coaches — Gary McKnight (Mater Dei High School in California), Lute Olson (University of Arizona) and Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) — have helped me become more comfortable and confident to coach in a situation where English is or isn’t the first language. … At every stop, defense was the one calling card I felt every successful team bought into.”

For Parmer, Saturday’s clash against the B-Corsairs boils down to the basics.

“The way we’re going to beat Yokohama is by playing the Phoenix brand of basketball,” he said. “That is playing hard, smart and together.”

Geary believes his team must focus on three things to beat Hamamatsu: “One, containing Dixon. Two, taking care of the ball. Three, winning the rebounding battle.”

Harsh treatment: Star forward Lynn Washington didn’t retire last month, as the team stated in a news release, but was forced out by the Osaka Evessa after his arrest on drug charges (he was exonerated of all charges by Osaka Prefectural Police), multiple sources with a pulse on the situation have told The Japan Times.

And Washington hasn’t granted an interview since his April 9 “retirement announcement” from the team.

Now, this newspaper has learned, Washington has been barred from attending Evessa games, according to hoop insiders.

Team spokesman Makoto Yamada did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, a prominent Osaka booster was also planning a farewell party for Washington sometime this month.

Around the league: Saitama Broncos forward John Flowers caught flak for ignoring a league-imposed gag order on discussing drug-related matters just days after Washington’s March 13 arrest, doing an interview with CBS radio affiliate 93.7 FM in Pittsburgh and claiming that he knew of widespread drug use around the league. “I could name at least two people on every team that smoke marijuana out here,” he told “The Fan Morning Show.”

Then Flowers was subjected to a surprising threat from league officials. (Flowers and the Broncos played their final game on April 29.)

Flowers told The Japan Times that “the league tried to fine me a lot of yen for that radio interview I did …”

“They tried to take it out of my last salary but I told them not to …,” he said. “Although I had to buy my own (airplane) ticket home, they still gave me all the money.”

Returning to Tokyo?: Former Tokyo Apache players John “Helicopter” Humphrey, who suited up for the Broncos this season after being out of the league in the previous two campaigns, and Reina Itakura, who wore a Chiba Jets uniform in 2011-12, are expected to join the expansion Tokyo Cinq Reves next season, a longtime hoop observer said Thursday.

Humphrey’s return to the new Tokyo-based team has been a rumor for several months. Stay tuned. …

New coach: Osaka native Tadashi Hayashi has been named the first coach in Gunma Crane Thunders history, it was announced recently.

Hayashi, who turns 50 on June 29, is a former Daito Bunka University point guard. He has previously coached at Kansai University and Tokuyama University, and guided teams in China’s intercollegiate competition.

Building a team with a structured system, while utilizing players’ capabilities and their collective fighting spirit is the goal, he said, calling this the identity he wants for the new Gunma squad.

Expansion applicants: The league has issued a call for prospective expansion groups to submit their interest in joining the league for the 2013-14 season. Twenty-one teams will compete in the league’s eighth season, 2012-13, but adding more teams remains a priority.

The application process is open from May 25 to the end of June. Applicants need to provide documentation that their yearly financial capital is at least in the range of ¥250 million to ¥300 million.

For more information, telephone: 03-5733-2680; fax: 03-5733-2690; and email: expansion@bj-league.com

Playoff predictions: The Japan Times reached out to a number of players and a few coaches on other teams to find out their thoughts on the Final Four.

Here’s a brief sampling of those interviews:

*Sendai’s Johnny Dukes: “Well, all four teams are solid; obviously that’s why they’re still playing. It’s going to come down to who plays the best on that day, (but) if I had to put my money on both games I would bet on Yokohama and Okinawa (Ryukyu).

“Yokohama is very tough defensively and also has the MVP and Okinawa has been the best team since day one, they go at least nine or 10 deep. Easier to win when you don’t depend on one or two guys every night, but a total team effort. With that being said I would take Okinawa over Yokohama in the final for the same reasons.”

*Iwate’s Shawn Malloy: Hamamatsu-Yokohama is going to be a very good matchup but I’ll have to give the edge to Hamamatsu simply because they have the experience. It’s not going to be easy reaching the finals for them because in my opinion Yokohama is the most physical team in the league. They both execute their offenses pretty well, but we all know defense wins championships and Hamamatsu has a strong defense.

“As far as the Ryukyu-Kyoto matchup goes, I’ll have to (pick) Ryukyu. They have been the best team all year and those guys just play together and get it done on both ends of the floor. They have so many weapons, but the inside game might be a problem because Kyoto has a bigger frontcourt.”

*Sendai coach Bob Pierce: “The defensive matchups probably favor Kyoto and Yokohama on Saturday, but if Jeff can channel his inner KG, who is having a great playoff run for the Celtics, and playoff experience matters as much as it often does, we should have a rematch of Okinawa-Hamamatsu, with a healthy Jeff making the difference and Okinawa winning their second title.

“But I have re-written that scenario many times, and each time with a different winner. So here’s hoping that the Final Four lives up to its potential with all of the teams having a great chance to win it all if they can put it all together for two straight games.

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