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Ishibashi steering Brave Warriors in the right direction

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Takatoshi “Big Bashi” Ishibashi served as the Shinshu Brave Warriors’ capable assistant coach during the team’s inaugural season under Motofumi Aoki, the 2006-07 bj-league Coach of the Year.

And as expected, the Brave Warriors had an up-and-down 2011-12 season — 18 victories and 34 defeats, to be precise — as they experienced the normal growing pains of a brand new team.

But the Nagano Prefecture-based club has emerged as one of the league’s better teams this season, with new coach Ishibashi putting his own stamp on the team after Aoki left to lead the Tokyo Cinq Reves.

What’s been most impressive about Shinshu’s performance under Ishibashi, is the team’s play away from Nagano. The Brave Warriors are 8-2 on the road, tops in the East. The reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (14-0) have the top road record in the West, with victories in all eight games outside of Okinawa.

Swingman Jermaine Green is the team’s leading scorer (15.6 points per game), followed by fellow Shinshu newcomer Wayne Marshall (14.9 ppg), returnee Edward Morris (12.6) and Takanori Goya (10.5). D’Mario Curry and Yosuke Saito are averaging 9.3 and 7.6 ppg, respectively.

Frontcourt standout Morris and guards Goya, Yosuke Saito, Takato Saito and Tadashi Utsunomiya returned for a second season with the club, as did guard Yuki Matsubara, who saw time in eight games during Aoki’s time in charge.

Marshall, a wide-bodied Temple University product, spent the past two seasons with the Osaka Evessa and helped the club go 67-35 in the regular season and advance to the postseason twice.

Now suiting up for Shinshu, Marshall has anchored the middle effectively and given the team an identity in the low post.

“I think are strengths are by far the inside presence of Wayne Marshall,” Morris told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “He is a skilled big who can step outside (and) hit big shots, and also make free throws down the line, as well as defend.”

Morris believes the addition of Green, a title winner with the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in 2009-10, has been a valuable element in the team’s maturation because “he knows what it takes to get to where we want to go.”

Healthy and hungry to win, seven-year bj-league veteran Goya, currently the leading All-Star vote-getter among the East’s guards, has played a valuable leadership role. Furthermore, the 192-cm Okinawan “can defend the top Japanese players — and even Americans if need be,” Morris said

Building a nucleus that can compete with the league’s elite teams takes time and diligence. But Morris recognizes the lessons learned last season paved the way for this season’s success, pointing out that only Goya and Takato Saito were bj-league veterans for the inaugural campaign.

“Having one year under the belt for our players and gaining some confidence too over the summer made our team quality better,” Morris said. “Having a strong inside (game) gives us a good shot and having athletic forwards gives us versatility.

“I think we have the most athletic forwards in the league, the dunk ranking should be proof showing how athletic our forwards are.”

Above all, Morris, a Pittsburg State (Kansas) product, believes Ishibashi has set the right tone for the team since taking over as bench boss.

“Big Bashi has that inner confidence in our players. He sees something in the players they might not see in themselves,” Morris said. “He gives you that coach feel, but he also gives you that big brother protection. I think we all enjoy playing for him.”

Marshall agreed that Ishibashi has taken the team to the next level by relying on smart leadership and unselfish play.

“I think the key to our play is the confidence we have in each other, followed by the way coach Bashi prepares week in and week out,” Marshall said. “We run an equal opportunity offense that allows all our guys to be scoring options in the flow of the game. Bashi has a team-first approach on both offense and defense. We all have to help each other on both ends to be successful, and our team bought into that.”

Shinshu has 36 games remaining on its schedule, but the team has demonstrated it has grown up quickly, rising to playoff contender in its second season.

“I think our strength is our versatility,” said Marshall, one of the league’s better shot blockers. “We have good players at every position and our willingness to play together as a team puts us in a position to compete against the top teams in this league.”

On a roll: No one said an 0-8 start was ideal for the Kyoto Hannaryz, but coach Honoo Hamaguchi has orchestrated the team’s impressive turnaround.

The Hannaryz have rattled off eight straight wins and found the right formula on offense and defense to beat the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (twice), Takamatsu Five Arrows (twice) and Miyazaki Shining Suns (four times) to reach .500.

Former MVP and Hannaryz newcomer David Palmer, a three-time champion (twice with Osaka Evessa and last season with the Ryukyu Golden Kings), leads an experienced squad that advanced to the Final Four for the first time last season. But the Kyoto front office brought in several newcomers, including guard Yu Okada, and big men Gyno Pomare and Marcus Cousin. Veteran guard Jermaine Boyette, the leading scorer last season, is back for a second season with the club, and Kyosuke Setoyama remains an important leader in the backcourt.

The squad took time to jell, but is becoming a more formidable foe as the season marches on.

“It takes a while to get the chemistry going sometimes,” said Gunma Crane Thunders coach Ryan Blackwell, who guided the Osaka Evessa from 2010-12.

“Kyoto has three new imports and some new Japanese players, so I’m sure that was a factor. They’re well-coached obviously, and David, Jermaine and Gyno are all experienced imports in this league, which is important. They started off slow last year as well and got better and better as the season progressed.”

Shiga Lakestars coach Al Westover, in his second at the helm, is not surprised the Hannaryz have turned things around.
“I think they have a lot of talent and are a well-coached team,” Westover said of the Lakestars’ Kansai rival. “Everybody was surprised that they started 0-8, but they had several new players, a tough schedule and lost several close games.
“Since then, I feel that they’ve gotten to know each other and their system better, their schedule hasn’t been as demanding, and a lot of it is confidence. You get a couple wins and everybody is feeling better about themselves and their team.”

He added: “So much of sports is the mental factor, and the best players, and best teams, have a lot of self-belief.”

Making an impact: Chiba Jets point guard Kensuke Tanaka has ascended to the top of the league’s passing chart. With three 11-assist games to his credit, Tanaka is now dishing out 6.7assists per game, best in the league.

Two-time Best Five selection Naoto Takushi, who played for the Oita HeatDevils since the start of the 2011-12 season, is the only Japanese player to lead the league in assists, averaging 5.79 per game in 2007-08 for the expansion Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Tanaka received the Most Improved Player award in 2010-11 while suiting up for the now-defunct Tokyo Apache. Tanaka’s Apache coach, Bob Hill, a former bench boss of four NBA teams, praised his natural instincts and ability to lead the team.

“Kensuke became a very important player for us,” Hill told The Japan Times earlier this week. “He instinctively pushes the ball and was always unselfish. If you want to push the ball, then he is your man.”

While with the Apache, Tanaka grew as a player while gaining valuable instruction from Hill and his son, then-Apache assistant Casey Hill, who currently serves as an NBA Development League assistant coach for the Santa Cruz Warriors.

“Casey and I learned to love him and we are thrilled he found a situation that’s fit his talents,” the elder Hill said.

Eric Gardow, who led the Jets during their inaugural 2011-12 season, said, “I have always respected Kensuke as an outstanding floor leader and he will continue to improve as those around him do.

“Three things have benefited all Japanese players like Kensuke this year: 1. First quarter and third quarter rules limiting two imports on the floor, so there are more minutes for Japanese players. 2. Import rule changes down to four per team, so more opportunities for Japanese players. 3. Specifically for Kensuke and the Jets, with no import playing the point guard position like (Maurice Hargrow) last year” increased Tanaka’s opportunities, Gardow added.

In addition to greater responsibilities under new coach Shinji Toyama, Tanaka has displayed a greater ability to take care of the basketball this season.

He had 123 assist and 68 turnovers in 51 games last season, his third in the league while playing a career-high 1,137 minutes. In 14 games, Tanaka is averaging a career-high 7.4 points, shooting 50 percent from inside the arc (21-for-42) and has 94 assists with 35 turnovers in helping the Jets triumph in half of their games to date.

Among the league’s other top playmakers Hamamatsu Hiagshimikawa Phoenix’s Kevin Galloway has 110 assists and 55 turnovers, Takuma Yamashiro of the Saitama Broncos has 67 and 22, Ryukyu Golden Kings guard Narito Namizato has 67 and 30, Yokohama B-Corsairs leader Draelon Burns has 75 and 30, Akita Northern Happinets standout Dion Harris has 68 and 19 and Sendai 89ers captain Takehiko Shimura 67 and nine.


League accolade:
Tokyo Cinq Reves center Jonathan Jones, who’s second in the league in scoring (21.4 ppg), is this week’s Lawson Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.

Jones had a 21-point, 21-rebound, three-assist, three-steal performance in the series opener last Saturday against visiting Saitama. In the finale, he had 27 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists as Tokyo completed a two-game sweep and improved to 7-9.

Upcoming games: The Sendai-Niigata series started on Thursday in Sendai. The rest of the weekend action tips off on Saturday. The schedule is as follows: Akita vs. Yokohama, Toyama vs. Shinshu, Saitama vs. Iwate, Chiba vs. Gunma, Shiga vs. Kyoto, Shimane vs. Osaka, Takamatsu vs. Oita, Fukuoka vs. Ryukyu and Miyazaki vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa.

Around the league: The B-Corsairs terminated the contract of big man Paul Butorac on Thursday due to “conduct detrimental to the team,” The Japan Times learned on Thursday.

“Paul Butorac was released from the Yokohama B-Corsairs for conduct detrimental to the team,” the team announced in a statement. “Paul struggled to perform in the role for which the B-Corsairs originally signed him; he was removed from practice due to dirty/dangerous play against his Japanese teammates on more than a couple of occasions, and his attitude became such a distraction that the B-Corsairs were willing to part ways with Butorac before a replacement player was due to arrive for its upcoming games.”

The Eastern Washington University product averaged 10.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in 14 games.

Butorac previously played for Niigata, Akita and Takamatsu.

Closing commentary: With the cash-strapped HeatDevils gutting their roster of quality players — showing the door to imports Taj Finger, Matt Lottich, Cyrus Tate and former regular-season MVP Wendell White — Oita now has a team that is much less interesting to watch, one with no depth and one that that will struggle mightily to stay competitive.

In short, the league has avoided making a real decision, when it took over operations of the Kyushu-based squad. Either the team is a viable franchise, or it isn’t. The team should’ve been forced to go out of buisiness.

Going through the motions to beg fans and potential sponsors for money makes the entire league look like an amateur operation, and that’s not how a pro league in its eighth season should conduct business. The bj-league should be smarter than this by now.

The HeatDevils lost their last game by 73 points, 123-50 to the Golden Kings, and that was a game in which Ryukyu went to its bench early and often. It could’ve been much, much worse.

Expect more one-sided defeats for Oita, giving fans even less incentive to watch the team as it quickly fades out of the playoff picture. (Oita was in second place in the West before the Ryukyu series, and now sits in fifth.)

As of Thursday 6:30 p.m., Oita had seven players listed on its roster on the team’s website. Forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano and guard Naoto Takushi, two of the team’s more experienced Japanese players, have almost certainly played their last games in a HeatDevils uniform. Other teams are expected to pursue signing them in the coming days.

League officials have mishandled this situation and have proven time after time that they do not know how to manage a crisis. Which, in turn, gives the league a bad reputation among the world’s pro circuits. Players, agents and hoop leaders around the globe speak out, and the word spreads that the bj-league does not have a handle on how to fix its major problems.

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