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Aomori building solid foundation as expansion team

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

First-year franchises are expected to have their share of ups and downs. In that regard, the Aomori Wat’s fit that description.

But the Wat’s (8-8 overall), sitting in sixth place, also appear to be a serious contender for a playoff spot (six are available) in the 11-team Eastern Conference.

Here’s how the season has gone so far for bench boss Koju Munakata’s squad (in succession): a win, three losses, a win, a loss, four wins, four losses and two wins.

The Wat’s swept the reigning champion Yokohama B-Corsairs last weekend in Aomori, winning 67-61 and 74-65. Though Yokohama has a different look this season with a new head coach, Michael Katsuhisa, and several new players, Aomori’s success last weekend served notice the team is in the mix for postseason contention and a potential winning season.

It all starts with defense for the Wat’s, who are holding foes to 68.0 points per game. (They are scoring 68.8.)

In 10 of their 16 games, Aomori has limited the opposition to 70 or fewer points, including a 68-53 triumph over the Iwate Big Bulls in the first regular-season contest in franchise history on Oct. 5. In his post-game remarks that day, Munakata noted that second-half defensive effort was important in that historic victory.

On Sunday, the 46-year-old Munakata said defense and rebounding are the team’s foundation. He also cited the game’s attendance (2,131 spectators) as an “encouraging” sign.

Based on his observations from the season’s first two months, especially from a two-game series (two wins) against Aomori on Nov. 16-17, Toyama Grouses coach Bob Nash has been impressed by the job Munakata has done in leading the Wat’s.

“He is an old-school coach at a young age,” Nash told The Japan Times. “(He’s) a very good tactician and teacher as his team was well prepared on offense and defense. He showed a great deal of energy and passion for coaching and his players played off his energy.

“For an upstart organization, he seems to have discipline in the team and respect from his players.”

Nash recognizes the Wat’s have a plan in place and aren’t just throwing darts at the wall.

“(They) are a dangerous team to play because of their balanced attack on offense and their solid defensive effort,” he said.

“Their organization seems to understand what it takes for the team to be successful and they support the coach by providing him with good players to work with.”

He added: “Aomori’s hospitality and sportsmanship is the best in the league, as they provided the opponents with energy drinks, fruit and water for the games. Their game-day staff treated the opponents with respect and courtesy. They are a first-class organization in my opinion.”

Overall teamwork is an important trait for the northern Tohoku-based squad. The Wat’s don’t have across-the-board flashy numbers that jump out at you among league leaders, such as individual scoring or assists. But Nigerian-born center Abdullahi Kuso, who is 29 years old, is the league’s ninth-leading rebounder (10.8 per game), and tied for ninth in blocks (1.4). A rugged physical presence in the paint, Kuso has 16-, 17-, and 19-rebound efforts.

Forward Gordon Klaiber, meanwhile, is tied for fourth in steals (2.2). Those statistics help propel the team’s defense.

Guard Yuki Kitamuki was the league’s Most Improved Player Award winner last season for Saitama, scoring a career-high 15.5 points per game. For Aomori, he’s been an important pickup and a potent weapon on the perimeter, averaging 11.3 ppg and knocking down 49.3 percent of his 3-point shots (34-for-69, second-best percentage in the 21-team circuit). Kitamuki has 32 assists and 16 turnovers. Forward Yuta Kojima also has 32 assists against 14 turnovers and 26 steals, nine behind team leader Klaiber.

As a fourth-year pro, swingman Makoto Sawaguchi, who turns 22 on Thursday, is already playing for his third pro team, following stints with Akita and Iwate. And he has the potential and athleticism to be a go-to scorer (18 points on Nov. 17) and key playmaker (five assists on Oct. 19).

Among players on the squad the entire season, Klaiber is the high scorer (15.7 ppg). Rookie guard Eric May, a University of Iowa product, averaged 10.2 ppg in 14 games, but was waived last week and replaced by Lamar Roberson.

Roberson, who attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, began the season with Niigata, appearing in just two games. In his first weekend in a Wat’s uniform, Roberson poured in 15 and 19 points against the B-Corsairs.

With Munakata at the helm, the Wat’s have been fairly consistent to date. Although they’ve struggled at the free-throw line (61.6 percent) and have more turnovers (231) than assists (205), they’ve laid the groundwork for the long, challenging season.

For Munakata, previous head coaching stints with the WJBL’s Hitachi High-Tech Cougars (2011-13) and Toyota Motors Alvark (2008-10) helped give the former JBL guard a solid background in this next phase of his career. And the Wat’s are capitalizing on the Aomori native’s experience during a so-far, so-good first chapter in their history.

Goya update: Osaka Evessa guard Takanori Goya, the No.1 pick in the 2007 bj-league draft, has sustained another setback in his comeback efforts. A dislocated right shoulder will sideline him for three to four weeks, according to a team news release.

Goya has yet to play this season while recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Where are they now?: Former Shiga and Hamamatsu sharpshooter Wayne Arnold is now playing for Petroleos de Luanda in Angola. . . . Ex-Toyama forward Jeremy Jacob has joined Stade Nabeulien in the 14-team Tunisian League.

Upcoming schedule: Weekend action tips off on Friday, with Shinshu playing host to Niigata. Nine other series begin on Saturday: Sendai vs. Aomori, Toyama vs. Akita (the East’s second- and first-place squads squaring off), Gunma vs. Tokyo, Saitama vs. Iwate, Yokohama vs. Takamatsu, Hamamatsu vs. Osaka, Shiga vs. Kyoto, Shimane vs. Oita and Ryukyu vs. Nara.

League honors: Aomori’s Kitamuki earned the Lawson/Ponta MVP accolade for his role in helping the Wat’s twice beat Yokohama, the league announced on Tuesday. He had 21 points (5-for-6 on 3s), five rebounds, five assists and three steals in the series finale.

The November MVP award, which also includes games of Dec. 1, went to Niigata guard Nile Murry, who helped the Albirex go 8-2 in their past 10 games through Sunday. Murry averaged 19 points, 4.2 assists and 50.5 percent shooting from 2-point range in November, as well as 90.2 percent from the free-throw line.

With the TCU product playing inspired basketball, Niigata has gone 9-1 at home and 13-5 to open the season.

The last word: “Munakata, from what I understand, is a tough, no-nonsense type of coach. His players play extremely hard and are disciplined as well. He’s done a good job with a first year team.”

— Gunma bench boss Ryan Blackwell on his coaching counterpart.

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