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Akita making run for title

by Ed Odeven

The stars have aligned for a special basketball season in Akita.

Just ask any of the Akita Northern Happinets’ die-hard fans.

Coach Kazuo Nakamura’s club is 16-2 entering this weekend and the Happinets are hosting the 2013-14 bj-league All-Star Game on Jan. 26. Expect a nice representation of Akita players in league showcase.

And there have been so many Happinets highlights to date that a quality DVR would be a wise investment to preserve the memories. It began on Oct. 5, when Akita, a fourth-year franchise, defeated visiting Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix 74-61, starting a season-opening, 12-game winning streak. There have been narrow victories (by two and three points), but numerous blowouts, too, including triumphs by 20, 23 (twice), 31 and 41 points. The team has the firepower to overwhelm foes.

Backcourt mates Shigehiro Taguchi, a 23-year-old perimeter marksman (11.6 points per game, 47.5 3-point shooting, second-best accuracy in the 21-team league), and Yuki Togashi, only 20, have brought excitement and youthful exuberance to 73-year-old coach Nakamura’s lineup. The inimitable bench boss celebrated his birthday on Wednesday, and then it was time to return to work and prepare for a big weekend series against the host Toyama Grouses, who are 13-3 and another formidable challenger for the Eastern Conference crown.

Fun fact: Taguchi has made two or more 3-pointers in 11 games, all Akita victories to date. This includes 7-for-13 against Shinshu on Oct. 27 and 7-for-7 versus Sendai on Nov. 10.

Having watched Taguchi take shot after shot during several pregame warmups and games for three seasons, I’ll sum up what I’ve observed this way: He has excellent shooting mechanics, a quick release and confidence.

Togashi is another rising talent. Last season, he joined the club after All-Star weekend and grabbed everyone’s attention with a 15-point, 11-assist, three-steal debut against Toyama.

The Niigata Prefecture native finished his high school career with a one-season stint at perennial power Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Maryland, and played for legendary prep coach Stu Vetter, who tutored Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant and NBL standouts Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui and Taishi Ito before their collegiate careers at Columbia University and University of Portland, respectively. Togashi is dishing out assists at a league-best 7.1 per game, including 32 over a three-game stretch in late October.

For someone still at the age of a university student, Togashi is exhibiting poise beyond his years, as evidenced by his free-throw shooting (37-for-42), in-game decisions (128 assists, 43 turnovers) and 15.1 ppg.

Analyzing Togashi’s overall game during a February phone conversation with Hoop Scoop, Vetter had this to say: “He’s very fundamentally sound and knows how to play. Great basketball IQ and he can do a little bit of everything. Good ball handler, shoots the ball well, plays hard defensively. He did a good job for us at Montrose and was certainly a factor in our success.”

The dynamic duo is supported by a talented frontcourt rotation that includes team scoring leader and University of Colorado alum Richard Roby (20.4 ppg), the half-brother of New York Knicks post player Kenyon Martin, center Chas McFarland, who followed in Tim Duncan’s footsteps at Wake Forest, and rebounding maestro Ruben Boykin (a league-best 13.8 per game, including two 20-rebound outings, and 12 double-doubles).

Boykin, who attended Northern Arizona University, is always around the basket, always vying for position to grab the ball to give his team another offensive opportunity or to terminate a chance for the opposition. (Think of Dennis Rodman’s desire to dominate on the boards.)

With his 215-cm frame, the lean McFarland challenges shooters at every conceivable angle to reject or to alter their shots’ trajectory. His 1.7 blocks per game rank No. 6 overall, but he brings and intimidating presence to the lineup to protect the basket.

While power forward Justin Burrell garnered league MVP honors and guard Draelon Burns created excitement with his dazzling dashes through the lane, McFarland provided a major presence, a calming influence and an anchor in the middle during the Yokohama B-Corsairs’ inaugural 2011-12 campaign, which included a trip to the Final Four. Having a center with polished fundamentals and a team-first attitude makes the inside-outside attack work on offense and creates the proper dynamics on defense for real success.

The aforementioned five Happinets mesh well and set the tone for the team.

Which is why Akita will make a serious run at the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ league record 42 wins, which was set last season.


In its ban of media access for this newspaper for the 2013-14 season, the bj-league has displayed zero acceptance of the value of English-language media for a league with a significant number of individuals whose first language is English. (See related story: www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2013/10/29/basketball/bj-league-bans-jt-access/)

Since the league’s inception in 2005, The Japan Times has been the only English-media outlet providing comprehensive, sustained, league-wide coverage, And for the 80-plus foreign players and several head coaches from overseas, the paper has also served a vital purpose: a constant source of information in their native tongue about the rapidly growing league they have helped build and popularize in 21 prefectures throughout Japan.

This newspaper has given them an opportunity to voice their thoughts, providing a forum for them to feel that their collective voice matters.

The league doesn’t care about any of that. And that’s a disgrace.