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Outlook varies for new coaches in both conferences

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The league’s annual coaching carousel produces success stories and disappointments for numerous franchises. And some teams are currently stuck in the middle, with chances to rise to the top or sink to the bottom.

Here’s a rundown of teams that began the 2013-14 campaign with a different bench boss than they had to open the 2012-13 season, excluding, of course, expansion clubs Aomori Wat’s (6-8) and Bambitious Nara (2-10).

■ Niigata Albirex BB (10-4) — Coach Fujitaka Hiraoka has guided the club to five straight wins and victories in eight of its last 10 games. Nile Murry is the team’s leading scorer (17.3 points per game) and newcomer Patrick Sullivan, a Southeastern Louisiana University product, has notched nine double-doubles and contributed 13.0 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.

Outlook: Impressive team performance under Hiraoka, who replaced 2012-13 Coach of the Year Matt Garrison.

■ Shinshu Brave Warriors (8-4) — Coach Ryuji Kawai has landed on his feet after getting axed by the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix last season despite a 60-30 regular-season record and a trip to the finals. The Brave Warriors feature top scorer Patrick Sanders, a UC-Irvine alum averaging 16.8 ppg, Shota Konno, scoring a career-best 15.1 ppg, and ex-Hamamatsu captain Jeffrey Parmer, a proven winner.

Outlook: The team is built to chase a Final Four berth.

■ Yokohama B-Corsairs (6-6) — Coach Michael Katsuhisa inherited the remains of a championship roster and has reshaped the team to fit the skills of new big men Wayne Marshall (10.3 ppg) and Marquise Gray (20.7 ppg, 12.6 prg) along with athletic shooting guard Omar Reed (15.8 ppg).

Outlook: The B-Corsairs have had an up-and-down season, but Katsuhisa grew as a coach working as ex-boss Reggie Geary’s understudy during back-to-back Final Four seasons.

■ Sendai 89ers (5-9) — Coach Shuto Kawachi’s club swept the Tokyo Cinq Reves last weekend to move to within four games of .500. It’s been a disappointing start for a team featuring former MVP Wendell White (17.7 ppg), but newcomer Travele Jones (18.3 ppg) has been a solid addition. Point guard Takehiko Shimura remains one of the league’s gutsiest, heady players and a brilliant decision maker (89 assists, 21 turnovers).

Outlook: The 28-year-old head coach will have growing pains in his first year as a pro boss.

■ Gunma Crane Thunders (2-10) — Coach Ryan Blackwell’s club picked up a much-needed win over Yokohama on Sunday. Simply put, the Crane Thunders have not made enough big plays to win close games (six defeats by single digits).

Outlook: They face a long climb to respectability.

■ Saitama Broncos (2-12) — Coach Takatoshi “Big Bashi” Ishibashi took over a club that has had eight consecutive losing seasons since the bj-league was established. No other team comes close to matching Saitama’s record of futility. Despite John Humphrey’s league-best 25.1 ppg, and Michael Joiner’s 15.1, the Broncos need more talent and more depth.

Outlook: It appears a 15-win season is likely.

On Monday, Ishibashi admitted it’s been a rocky start for his club.

It’s a “tough situation, but we must keep (making an) effort,” he told The Japan Times.

Asked if he believes he faces must-win games in order to keep his job, Ishibashi declined to comment. “I can only say we need to win,” he stated.

Now, a breakdown of the Western Conference squads.

■ Ryukyu Golden Kings (10-2) — Coach Tsutomu Isa, an assistant since the franchise’s inception before replacing Koto Toyama, has guided the Kings to a familiar spot atop the West. Center Kibwe Trim has flourished as the top scorer (14.5 ppg, 63.2 percent shooting from the field), with Anthony McHenry (12.3 ppg) and Ryuichi Kishimoto (10.3, seven double-digit scoring games for the 23-year-old to date) providing valuable options. And ex-Yokohama superstar Draelon Burns arrived last week, giving a spark with 15.0 ppg in his weekend debut, a sweep over the lowly Shimane Susanoo Magic.

Outlook: Final Four or bust.

■ Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (8-4) — Coach Tomoya Higashino replaced Kawai in March. The team made the playoffs but missed the Final Four for the first time in its five bj-league seasons. The Phoenix are positioning themselves for another possible return to Ariake Colosseum, with Jermaine Dixon (14.4 ppg) and Aki Chambers (14.1) leading the charge.

Outlook: At 8-2 in their last 10 games, the Phoenix are responding to Coach Crusher’s message.

■ Shiga Lakestars (6-6) — Coach Chris Boettcher has his team in the thick of things in the tight West. The Lakestars are 3-3 at home and 3-3 on the road. They have four double-digit scorers, led by Brandon Fields and Dionisio Gomez (13.4 ppg apiece). And they are shooting 28.4 percent on 3s. They’ve dropped four straight games.

Outlook: Better consistency is needed to climb in the standings.

■ Osaka Evessa (6-6) — Coach Shunsuke Todo has had a six-game winning streak, followed by six straight losses. (See below.)

■ Rizing Fukuoka (5-7) — Kimitoshi Sano was promoted from assistant coach to sideline supervisor on Tuesday. He’s been on the bench for each of the team’s 12 games. Mack Tuck, the newly hired head coach in the offseason, departed in the preseason due to a family matter and has not returned.

Outlook: The talented veteran team, featuring big men Julius Ashby and Reggie Warren and guards Cohey Aoki and Akitomo Takeno, among others, can make a big run if the pieces fall into place.

■ Shimane Susanoo Magic (1-11) — Coach Vlasios Vlaikidis’ team hit rock bottom on Sunday in Okinawa, scoring just 48 points just days after releasing leading scorer Thomas Kennedy.

Outlook: Unless the team finds a way to upgrade its league-worst offense (66.7 ppg) in a hurry, 45 losses seem like a definite possibility.

Free-throw shooting woes: During Osaka’s current six-game slide, the Evessa’s free-throw shooting has been a major problem. Osaka shot 65-for-131 (49.6 percent) at the line in those games. Five of those losses were by 10 points or less.

The team’s overall free-throw shooting is 53.8 percent.

“I am very concerned with our free-throw percentage,” Todo told The Japan Times on Monday.

And he recognizes the need to make foul shots a focal point for his players.

“I am working on this with two distinctive approaches,” Todo said. “One, repetitions, in practice and in individual shooting (drills). Two, better 2-point (shooting) percentages.

“We have to get the ball to the poor free-throw shooters where they can finish better, (so) they can score before they even get fouled.”

Upcoming games: The weekend action tips off on Friday, with Takamatsu playing host to Osaka. Seven other series commence on Saturday: Niigata vs. Akita, Toyama vs. Yokohama, Gunma vs. Fukuoka, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa vs. Ryukyu, Shiga vs. Tokyo, Shimane vs. Nara and Oita vs. Kyoto.

Weekly honor: Oita’s Shuichi Takada is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.

The veteran forward scored a season-high 21 points on 9-for-11 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and picked up a steal in a 76-66 road win over the Rizing Fukuoka on Saturday. A day later, he had 13 points, went 4-for-4 at the free-throw line, pulled down three boards and made a steal in a 76-71 win, the HeatDevils’ fourth in a row.

Did you know?: Guard Mychal Kearse, who suited up for the Akita Northern Happinets in the 2011-12 season, is now playing for Al Karkh in the 10-team Iraqi League. Serbian Radenko Orlovic is Kearse’s coach.

Look for an upcoming Hoop Scoop column on Kearse’s experiences in Iraq.

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp