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Gunma making progress under Blackwell’s leadership

by Ed Odeven

Staff writer

The Gunma Crane Thunders’ entire history consists of 46 regular-season games — 12 wins, 34 defeats. A standard of excellence and habits, good or bad, generally take longer to form.

Head coach Ryan Blackwell has only been at the helm for 36 games, officially taking over 10 games into the season. Original Gunma coach Tadashi Hayashi was shown the door after an 0-8 start. Blackwell’s assistant, Kesiuke Hirose, was on the sideline, and Blackwell watched from the stands that first weekend (Nov. 3-4) while his work visa paperwork was processed.

The first-year franchise was 0-12 before recording its first victory, an 85-80 road triumph over the Tokyo Cinq Reves, another expansion squad, on Nov. 14.

With six games remaining in their inaugural campaign, Blackwell is focusing on the positive steps the franchise has made. And after going 0-8 in October and 1-7 in November, Blackwell guided the Crane Thunders to a 3-3 record in December, a 1-5 showing in January and a 4-4 mark in February. They were 3-5 in March.

Gunma has gone 0-10 against two playoff-bound Eastern Conference foes, the Toyama Grouses and Iwate Big Bulls. But they are 12-22 against the rest of the league, including 3-1 vs. Tokyo and 2-2 against the Niigata Albirex BB, a top-level team.

“They are all young,” Blackwell told The Japan Times, describing his team’s makeup before rattling off players’ ages — 24, 25, 26, for instance.

Guard Yuto Okumoto, a promising 26-year-old, sank a rainbow 3-pointer in Sunday’s 103-91 loss to the visiting Saitama Broncos, a picture-perfect display of shooting and mechanics. In later moments, Okumoto’s shots didn’t have the same fluid motion, nor were they on target.

In a nutshell, Blackwell sees this as a sign of his team’s step-by-step growth.

“He started to hesitate,” was the way Blackwell described Okumoto’s struggles. “He was wide open . . . and I told him one time, ‘Don’t hesitate when you shoot the ball.’ “

By leading the Osaka Evessa to consecutive playoff appearances in 2010-11 (Final Four berth) and last season, Blackwell has had success in this league in his first coaching gig after retiring as an Osaka player in 2010. And now, he said, his players are embracing his message and the team is planting the seeds for future success.

“They are definitely 10 times better than they were when I first came,” the Syracuse University alum said, “and their effort’s better. And their knowledge of the game and the little things, their IQ, is getting better, I think, I hope. Like I said, we’ve been playing better, even the games we’ve lost — we lost to Fukuoka a couple times (88-80 and 81-75 on March 2-3), and we should’ve beat them. It’s OK. As long as we’re improving I’m happy.”

Gunma post player Lewis Witcher, who suited up for the Miyazaki Shining Suns last season, believes the Crane Thunders have made important strides this season in building a foundation for the future.

“Overall, from the changes and stuff that we’ve dealt with, I feel that we have done it in a good manner,” Witcher said on Sunday. “I mean, we still have some chemistry (issues) to learn (about) each other on the court, but that comes with time. I’m sure if we keep learning and keep playing hard and keep playing the way we’ve been playing, hopefully we can get to the point where we can establish kind of a (base) for the whole team.”

In last weekend’s series against Saitama, Witcher and his teammates launched 105 3-pointers against a jam-the-lane zone defense. Witcher, speaking after the back-to-back losses, said he could never recall being on a team that shot that many 3s over a two-game stretch.

“Yeah, I would say that has to be a record,” he said with a laugh. “But the way that Saitama plays their defense, their zone, is different than normal from what I know of. . . . They want to pack it inside but not as much as I’ve seen with what Saitama was trying to do.”

Witcher recognizes that Blackwell’s experience in the now-21-team bj-league as a player and coach since 2006, when the circuit had only eight teams gives him broad background that helps in preparing scouting reports and building game plans.

“Obviously, it was a great addition to our organization, to our team, to bring in coach Blackwell,” said Witcher, a Virginia Tech product.

“He knows this league, he knows how to play in it, how to coach in it and be able to get wins because he’s been a successful coach and a player,” Witcher added.

Crane Thunders leading scorer Jermaine Dixon (17.2 points per game), Shingo Okada (8.1 ppg) and Kenya Tomori (7.3) all have championship season experience with the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in 2010-11, and Okada on both Phoenix title-winning squads. Dominique Keller, averaging 17.1 ppg with Gunma, was a key pickup after he began the season with the Shining Suns. Including his time with Miyazaki, Keller, who turns 25 on April 16, is the league’s 10th-leading scorer (18.6).

Witcher is scoring 12.2 ppg and Okumoto has had explosive offensive efforts (a pair of 19-point games and 18, including five 3s, last Saturday).

Tomori, who made his bj-league debut with the Ryukyu Golden Kings in 2007, leads Gunma in assists (173) and steals (62). He’s No. 8 in the league in assists per game (3.8)

Blackwell said he would like to see the team have more inside weapons on offense, noting that Witcher is the team’s lone true post presence.

Okada said there’s no magic formula for the Crane Thunders to have the type of success that became the norm for Hamamatsu.

Instead, he stated, “practice and more practice. That’s the most important thing to develop into a championship team.” Okada described the team’s ups and downs this season “necessary steps” to become a stronger team.

Weekend schedule: The following series are on tap for Saturday and Sunday: Akita vs. Niigata, Sendai vs. Chiba, Toyama vs. Yokohama, Shinshu vs. Iwate, Saitama vs. Tokyo, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa vs. Fukuoka, Kyoto vs. Takamatsu, Osaka vs. Oita, Miyazaki vs. Shiga and Ryukyu vs. Gunma.

League accolade: Saitama guard/forward John “Helicopter” Humphrey received this week’s Lawson/Ponta MVP award after a pair of strong performances against host Gunma. The league’s leading scorer (25.9 points per game) had 21 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the series opener and 34 points, 19 boards, two assists and a block in the Sunday rematch. The Broncos earned a series sweep.

Around the league: Former Niigata head coach Masaya Hirose has joined Aoyama Gakuin University men’s basketball staff as an assistant coach. Hirose worked this season as Hakuoh University’s head coach. He coached the Albirex for 11 seasons through 2011. . . . Bob Pierce, ex-bench boss for Shiga, Akita and Sendai, has resurfaced in southern China. He’s currently working in Longgang district in Shenzen, Guandong Province, as head coach and director of development for Five-Star Sports Basketball. He’ll be participating in a two-week basketball tour in China along with ex-NBA player Jay Humphries and United States Basketball Academy president Bruce O’Neil and American players brought over for the trip, starting in a few days.