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Veteran coach Nash has Toyama poised for playoff run

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Stable leadership is as important to a team’s success as hard-working players.

The Toyama Grouses have both.

Led by bench boss Bob Nash and a veteran nucleus of players, the Grouses (25-13, tied for the third-best record in the 11-team Eastern Conference) have put themselves in position to contend for a spot in the Final Four. And if Toyama, now in its seventh season, reaches Ariake Colosseum in May, the team will accomplish the feat for the first time in franchise history.

The Grouses have won 11 of their past 15 games. The team is 13-7 at home and 12-6 on the road. And at this stage of his coaching career, Nash, a former NBA forward and longtime fixture at the University of Hawaii (player, assistant coach, head coach), is a calming influence for the club in his first season at the helm.

“Coach Nash is a coach who always preaches ‘stay together no matter what happens,’ ” Toyama forward Ira Brown told The Japan Times earlier this week. “(He tells us), ‘Teams go through adversity, but it is the teams who have chemistry and stay together are the teams that prevail deep into the playoffs. Those teams know what sacrificing for one another is.’

“Our players are not looking for personal stats. What matters is the number at the end of the game that says Grouses win. That is what coach Nash preaches.”

Toyama is balanced on both sides of the ball, including as a solid group of shot-swatting players. Brown leads the charge with 50 rejections, followed by Angel Garcia’s 36, Brandon Cole’s 25 and Takeshi Mito’s 18.

On the scoring chart Brown is the leader (15.8 points per game), Masashi Joho is next at 13.8, Garcia averages 13.6 and University of Oregon product Jeremy Jacob, also a forward, is at 11.2.

Rounding out the top six, Mito is scoring 9.9 ppg and Cole 8.6. All have been go-to scorers at various stages throughout the season, one of the team’s chief strengths. And forward Tatsunori Fujie is contributing 6.9 ppg.

Toyama native Mito, the team leader in steals (63) and minutes (1,306) has been a valuable contributor for the franchise since joining the Grouses in 2008.

“I think Mito is extremely underrated,” said Brown, who played college ball at Gonzaga, currently the NCAA Division I’s No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. “Mito is quick, can shoot, defend, everything. He is an extremely passionate player who works extremely hard and never gets rewarded because he is an extremely unselfish player. . . . Mito is the Grouses.”

What also makes the Grouses successful is Nash’s ability to notice the little things that add up to the big picture: how to win games.

“What works well for us are the adjustments that he makes after every game,” Brown said, “because he sees things we (the players) don’t see.”

In taking a look at the season’s stretch run — 14 more regular-season games after a bye this weekend — Brown believes the Grouses are headed in the right direction.

“I think the Japanese players have handled everything well,” Brown said. “I mean, we all have off nights, but it is how you respond to the off night the next day. I love the fight that both Japanese and Americans have this year. We don’t back down from anyone know matter what our record says.”

Pointing out two focal points for improvement in the coming weeks, Brown stated that post defense and reducing turnovers are things to work on.

Toyama has a .500 record against the East’s three teams with identical or better records: Iwate (25-13 overall, 2-2 vs. the Grouses), Yokohama (25-11, 1-1) and Niigata (27-11, 2-2). The Grouses have had only one losing streak (two games) this season, falling 77-70 and 90-58 to host Akita on Oct. 13-14.

Since then, the team has established itself as a legitimate Final Four contender, a season after then-coach Kazuaki Shimoji almost guided the Grouses to their first winning campaign (25-27).

Shimoji stepped down after the season due to health issues, and 62-year-old Nash, Saitama’s head coach in 2010-11, has put his own stamp on the team.

“I say this humbly, but of course I feel our team can make the Final Four,” Brown said. “But we must realize it’s not going to be given to us. It is going to be a dog fight.

“We are considered a low-market team in the bj-league, so that right there tells you how hard we must work to beat some of the top teams with (more) money. I feel that we will be ready for the challenge and play for one another as a team.”

League accolades: Oita guard Taishiro Shimizu received this week’s Lawson/Ponta MVP award, it was announced on Wednesday. Shimizu played an integral role in helping the HeatDevils snap a six-game losing streak on Saturday. He sank 6 of 8 3-pointers and scored 28 points with eight assists in an 86-78 triumph against visiting Niigata. A day later, Shimizu scored 17 points in a 12-point loss to the Albirex.

Weekly schedule: The Sendai-Takamatsu series began on Thursday at Aoba Gymnasium in Sendai. The rest of the week’s series tip off on Saturday: Iwate vs. Ryukyu (Big Bulls coach Dai Oketani going up against the team he led to a pair of championships, including 2011-12, for the first time in the regular season), Saitama vs. Akita, Chiba vs. Shiga, Yokohama vs. Oita, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa vs. Tokyo (Tomoya Higashino makes his Phoenix coaching debut), Kyoto vs. Niigata, Shimane vs. Shinshu, Miyazaki vs. Gunma and Fukuoka vs. Osaka).

Quotable, part I: “Joho plays like an American. When he studies the game, he studies from American players and works hard until he accomplishes that move of that player. I am on his team and I am in awe of some of the things he does in practice.” — Brown, dishing out praise to his All-Star teammate.

Quotable, part II: “It is a tough situation but we have to press forward and stay focused on the remainder of the season. The new coach is working well with the situation.” — Sendai forward T.J. Cummings on the team’s recent change in leadership, with general manager Takeo Mabashi stepping in as acting head coach after Bob Pierce was relieved of his duties.

Closing commentary: The Miyazaki Shining Suns have 14 games remaining and a roster with only two imports, two fewer than is allowed by current league rules. This puts them at a competitive disadvantage whenever they step onto the court.

Miyazaki has lost 12 of its last 13 games, and started the season 1-13. Total disarray has been the franchise’s trademark this season.

In many ways, the league appears to have zero control over teams’ actions and this creates the image of a parody of a pro league more times than not, which is the case with Miyazaki.

The Feb. 21 deadline has passed for teams to add players to their roster, meaning the Shining Suns’ glaring roster flaws will be greatly exposed the rest of the season. A sad, pathetic story.

Feedback: Send story ideas and comments on the bj-league to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp