For Honoo Hamaguchi and Dai Oketani, longevity is one part of their success story as the bj-league’s longest-tenured coaches. What’s more, their quality teams are always competitive year after year.
Hamaguchi, the Kyoto Hannaryz coach, and Oketani, the Iwate Big Bulls bench boss, are the only two sideline supervisors who held top jobs in the bj-league’s inaugural season still employed here.
Hamaguchi is still chasing his elusive first title.
Oketani is looking to match ex-Osaka Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi’s league-record three titles. He won two championships with the Ryukyu Golden Kings after a stint with the Oita HeatDevils (he replaced ex-NBA big man Jawann Oldham on the Oita bench after 16 games in 2006).
Both coaches are well-respected mentors throughout the league.
Hamaguchi’s six seasons as the Sendai 89ers coach came to an end when the team suspended operations after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Oketani left the Okinawa-based powerhouse after the team defeated the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to claim the championship last May.
For Hamaguchi, the 2012-13 campaign has displayed his coaching credentials in a season when a number of quality candidates are in the mix for Coach of the Year honors, including Ryukyu’s Koto Toyama (a league-best 38-10 record), Fukuoka’s Atsushi Kanazawa (33-17 record), Shimane’s Zeljko Pavlicevic (franchise’s best season to date at 31-17), Shiga’s Al Westover (at 30-18 the Lakestars have coped with a number of injuries), plus Osaka’s Bill Cartwright (he’s 17-7 at the helm for a team that was 5-19 when he took over in late January).
In the Eastern Conference, Yokohama’s Reggie Geary, the 2011-12 Coach of the Year, has already guided the second-year franchise to a better won-loss record than last season, and the B-Corsairs (32-16) are in a three-way battle for first place with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Niigata’s Matt Garrison and Toyama’s Bob Nash are both presiding over 32-16 squads.
How about Oketani?
His Big Bulls (31-17), a second-year franchise, have already made an 12-win improvement over last season to position themselves for a shot at the Final Four. Impressive, indeed.
As for Hamaguchi, he refused to panic when the Hannaryz (27-21, fifth in West) had a lousy start to the season. Their season-opening eight-game losing streak certainly raised a few eyebrows, but it was not a disaster-in-the-making scenario.
After all, the 43-year-old guided the Hannaryz to their first Final Four last season, and through Sunday he’s compiled a 190-126 overall record during the regular season, starting with game No. 1 for the Sendai 89ers in the fall of 2005.
Two-time league MVP Lynn Washington, the former Osaka Evessa superstar, praised Hamaguchi’s coaching ability in an interview with The Japan Times last spring. “He is the ultimate micro-manager,” Washington said of Hamaguchi. “Japanese players need detailed coaching to understand how to play this game. Honoo brings that to a team.”
When the Hannaryz fell to 0-8 on Nov. 4, losing 93-86 to Shimane, Hamaguchi told reporters that “his team should be able to win with 86 points, but I wanted us to (play) a little more defense.”
So guess what happened?
Defense fueled the team’s turnaround. An eight-game winning streak brought the team to .500 for the first time on Dec. 2 after a blowout win over Miyazaki. In those eight games, Kyoto yielded (in succession) 75, 63, 85, 87, 69, 88, 74 and 67 points.
After the 87-67 win over Miyazaki that made them 8-8, Hamaguchi said the Hannaryz’s “defense was firm” and the team exhibited patience, two trademarks of his teams over the years.
As the regular season winds down, Kyoto is posting similar numbers across the board that have been common for Hamaguchi’s teams. Balanced scoring (six players with 8.4 points per game or more), solid free-throw shooting (76.4 percent as a team) a knack for taking care of the basketball (771 assists, 582 turnovers) and sharing it (four players with 100 or more assists).
Big man Marcus Cousin, who had a four-game stint with the Utah Jazz in the 2010-11 season, is Kyoto’s leading scorer (15.3 points per game). David Palmer, a two-time title winner with Osaka and Ryukyu last season, has a 14.0 ppg average, followed by Gyno Pomare’s 11.8, Yu Okada’s 10.9, Masaharu Kataoka’s 10.0 and Jermaine Boyette’s 8.4.
Weekly accolade: Tokyo’s Ricky Woods had 28 points, 20 rebounds, 15 assists and two steals in a 101-83 win over host Saitama on Saturday. In the Sunday rematch, he had 32 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and 11 turnovers in a 122-100 defeat to the Broncos.
Upcoming schedule: The next-to-last weekend of the regular season features the following matchups: Iwate vs. Miyazaki, Niigata vs. Osaka, Shinshu vs. Sendai, Gunma vs. Hamamatsu, Tokyo vs. Ryukyu, Yokohama vs. Chiba, Shiga vs. Akita, Shimane vs. Saitama, Takamatsu vs. Kyoto and Oita vs. Toyama.
B-Corsairs talk: Coach Geary sat down with reporters on Tuesday afternoon after an open practice, where fans had a chance to watch the team in action. In his upbeat remarks, one got a sense that Geary is quite pleased with the team’s composure and focus as it gears up for the playoffs.
“We feel like we’re our old selves and we’re playing with some confidence going forward,” Geary said.
For the B-Corsairs, continued progress made by several role players, including guards Minoru Kimura, Seiji Kono and Satoshi Hisayama, is a positive sign.
“Obviously, the development of Kim this year, going from kind of a career practice player at Tokyo to being a contributing member of our team last year to now even being a starting member of our team and really giving us good minutes has been a nice plus,” Geary said of Kimura.
“Obviously the development of Seiji (Kono) at the backup point guard role really gives us another gear. He’s a little bit more offensive-minded than Kenji (Yamada), and so it’s kind of nice to have that balance, of the veteran and the speed. So obviously those are two of the guys that really stood out.”
And how about second-year post player Faye Pape Mour, a native of Senegal who averaged 5.9 ppg as a rookie last season?
“He’s just gotten better and better as his understanding of the game has gotten better,” Geary said.
This season, Mour is averaging 9.4 points and almost 8.3 rebounds a game and is a more assertive presence in the low post.
Floor leader and All-Star guard Draelon Burns, a key acquisition last season, also commended Mour for his increased productivity this season.
“Pape went against a great opponent in JB (regular-season MVP Justin Burrell) last year, and this year he’s going against Shawn (Malloy), who is a big body, too, so he gets good preparation (in practice),” Burns observed.
“And what he brings to the team is rebounds, hustle and fight, which is very important for us. We need a guy who’s down and dirty and I think Pape is that guy. He just helps us a lot; whether he starts or comes off the bench, he always plays hard and brings energy to the team.”
Geary also pointed to the improved play of Hisayama for “his ability to help us stretch the floor and his shooting ability.”
Looking at the East’s top teams and the battle for the regular-season crown, Geary had this to say: “. . .There’s great parity in our league. It just makes every weekend, every game so important. I think it just gives us a different kind of intensity on our end, which has been, from a coaching standpoint, a good thing and a bad thing. But great intensity every weekend. Being that there’s so much parity, you can’t take anybody for granted, whether it be Sendai or Tokyo or Saitama, you know you’re in for a fight that night…”
Burns believes the B-Corsairs are playing quality ball right now, saying confidence is high for him and his teammates with the playoffs on the horizon.
Evessa banter: How big of an impact has Cartwright made for Osaka in his short time in charge? And how has that been a quality development for the league as a whole?
Geary and Toyama coach Robert Nash offered their views on the above questions in recent interviews with this newspaper.
“Bill Cartwright has done a nice job at Osaka,” Geary said. “Every since they added coach Cartwright, with his years of experience as both an NBA player and coach, to go along with the mid season personnel additions of bj-league veterans Rick Rickert and Michael Bell, their overall quality of play on both ends of the floor has definitely improved.
“Though we haven’t played Osaka this season, observing his team on tape I can definitely tell that coach Cartwright garners instant respect from his players due to his extensive background and knowledge, which has resulted in more wins for his organization,” he added.
“Anytime a former NBA head coach is in our league teaching and helping evolve the game of basketball in Japan, it’s good for all of us who are working hard to do the same for the league and its growing fan base.”
Nash also thinks Cartwright’s presence has been a terrific addition for the league.
“First, I think Bill has done a great job of setting the foundations for Osaka’s success in a very short period of time,” said Nash, a former NBA forward. “You win big games with commitment from the team to defend and Bill has his team really working hard on defense. The future for Osaka is very bright.
“Secondly, having a high-profile coach like Bill in our league speaks volume for the future of our league,” Nash added. “However, looking around the league there are seven foreign coaches and all but two have their teams in the playoff picture, so I think the league has to be happy with the leadership and coaching ability of all the imported coaches as we try to grow the sport.
“The current group of import coaches are all good character guys and teacher of the game.”
Nash stated that the league’s growth has led to better talent and better teams.
“We have a good league and each season the talent level has gotten better,” said Nash. “It takes time to build a successful team and program, with the exception of (Saitama coach) Tracy (Williams) and Bill all the other coaches have been in Japan for at lease two seasons.
“Bill has hit ground running to get Osaka back up to speed and ready to compete for championship.”
Quotable: “I can’t really speak for (everybody) but I kind of like for the fans to come to practice and watch us. It gives us a little more excitement. It gives us energy, I think. Today I think our energy was pretty high .. for the fans we wanted to show off a little bit, because in practice we get to do a lot of things we don’t get to do in the game. So you guys get to see a little more excitement, I think.” — Burns, a DePaul University product said, giving his thoughts on Tuesday’s open practice in front of fans.
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