The Ryukyu Golden Kings, not unlike a well-oiled machine, are the best squad in the league. And this week we examine how they stack up with the other nine teams in the Western Conference over the past 10 games, or roughly one-fifth of the 52-game season.
The Golden Kings (15-1) suffered their first loss of the season on Sunday, falling 86-74 to the Rizing Fukuoka.
But hey, perfection is hard to maintain.
Even so, the Okinawa powerhouse has seven players averaging 8.1 or more points per game (ppg). Keeping them all in check is a very difficult task, and underrated floor leader Tsubasa Yonamine can come off the bench and provide a spark if others falter. His 5.5 ppg and 44 assists against 10 turnovers would be more significant on a team with less depth. He’d likely have a starring role instead of playing 275 minutes over the season’s first 16 games.
The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (13-7) are the most dangerous challenger to the Kings now that former MVP Wendell White rejoined the club last week after a distinguished stint with the Oita HeatDevils.
The Phoenix are 6-4 over the past 10 games, but riding a five-game winning streak.
The Shimane Susanoo Magic (11-7) have hit a rough spot in their season, going 4-6 in their last 10, while the Rizing (also 11-7) have gone 6-4.
The fading-fast HeatDevils (9-9) had only seven players under contract as of 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, according to the team website, and only Kohei Mitomo and Taishiro Shimizu have been major Japanese contributors in this league.
Oita has dropped eight of its last 10 games, and lost standouts Cyrus Tate, Matt Lottich, White and Taj Finger (to Niigata), as well as Naoto Takushi (TBA) and Kazuya Hatano (to Shimane) due to financial woes.
The Kyoto Hannaryz (9-9) are headed in the opposite direction, what with nine victories in 10 games. Their eight-game win streak was halted 69-67 by the Shiga Lakestars on Saturday, but they bounced back with a 73-70 triumph a day later.
Putting guard and Kyoto newcomer Masaharu Kataoka in position to become more comfortable as a key scorer — he’s averaging 8.9 ppg — will likely make the club even more dangerous.
The Lakestars (9-9) are a game over .500 in their past 10, with six wins better than five in that span, coach Al Westover would tell you if you asked.
The Takamatsu Five Arrows, meanwhile, have picked up four wins in that 10-game stretch and are 6-10 overall under second-year bench boss Kenzo Maeda, whose leading scorer is Dexter Lyons (14.9 ppg).
The Osaka Evessa (2-12) had an eight-game losing streak sandwiched around their two wins over the past 10 contests, a four-point victory over Oita and seven-point decision against Shimane on Sunday.
The Miyazaki Shining Suns (2-16) went 1-9 over their past 10, and have surrendered a whopping 356 more points than they’ve scored this season.
Big Bulls talk: Getting better and staying hungry to win are two staples of Dai Oketani’s approach to coaching, from his time with the HeatDevils, Golden Kings and now the Iwate Big Bulls.
Iwate (13-5) has the best record in the Eastern Conference, and it’s fueled Oketani’s desire to be even better.
Coming off a 111-94 win on Saturday, he pointed out that yielding 94 points is too many, saying his players worked on “individual defense, so they had so many gaps. So we have to seal the gaps, help the teammates.”
During Oketani’s four-year stint with the Golden Kings, which included two championships, the goal was to gradually build a slightly more complex system on both offense and defense, he said. For now, the Big Bulls are still laying the foundation for the team’s future.
Individually, picking up the nuances of the Xs and Os is done more easily than in tandem with teammates, Oketani acknowledged, saying patience is needed.
“Raising our execution level plus taking the next step, more in combination with other players in greater detail, are things we have to improve more,” the veteran coach said. “In Okinawa, the first year the execution level was very low, but it got better step by step.”
Weekly accolade: Yokohama forward Thomas Kennedy played an integral role in his team’s two-game sweep over host Akita last weekend. Kennedy, with 21-point, 13-rebound and 17-point, 14-rebound performances, is the Lawson Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced Tuesday.
The 25-year-old, a University of Detroit Mercy alum, is averaging 18.8 points in 16 games for the B-Corsairs. Last season, he suited up for Iwate.
Broncos update: Saitama coach Tracy Williams has had a rough first season in the bj-league, trying to transform the Broncos (2-12) into winners.
The franchise has failed to finish above .500 and qualify for the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons.
The key to turn things around is “from the neck up that we start to believe in ourselves, in the work that we do and in each other (that) we’re going to be the best team in this league,” Williams said last Saturday in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture after his team’s series-opening loss to Iwate.
“But that’s the goal. I don’t have any physical goals. I don’t want them to grow taller. I don’t need bigger players. I don’t need faster players. I don’t need higher-jumping players. I just need players to believe. . .”
Upcoming games: The Yokohama-Sendai series was scheduled get under way on Thursday in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, followed by the Friday rematch in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture.
The rest of the weekend’s action tips off on Saturday. The scheduled competition is as follows: Kyoto vs. Shiga, Gunma vs. Tokyo, Niigata vs. Chiba, Oita vs. Fukuoka, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa vs. Osaka, Toyama vs. Saitama, Ryukyu vs. Shimane, Takamatsu vs. Miyazaki and Shinshu vs. Akita.
Jets move: Forward Serge Angounou was released by the Chiba Jets on Wednesday. The Arizona State product averaged 7.8 points and nearly 7.0 rebounds in 12 games. He’s been plagued by injuries this season, playing sparingly since early November.
Bizarre swap: Center Dominique Keller was acquired by the Gunma Crane Thunders from the Miyazaki Shining Suns for an undisclosed amount of cash.
Both teams are in last place in their respective conferences and have identical 2-16 records.
Keller averaged 21.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 16 games for Miyazaki. He attended the University of Illinois, where Gunma coach Ryan Blackwell began his college career before transferring to Syracuse.
“I love coach Blackwell,” Keller told The Japan Times. “He is a very good coach who knows the game of basketball. We can turn this around (in Gunma).”
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