The Oita HeatDevils were 7-1 to open the 2012-13 season before the team’s financial crisis broke up the nucleus of the roster, sending Matt Lottich, Wendell White, Taj Finger, Cyrus Tate, Kazuya “J.” Hatano and Naoto Takushi packing as massive cost-cutting measures took place and new players arrived.
The league office stepped in and a new team company was formed in the process, with Japanese players taking significant pay cuts to remain with the club.
The team took a nosedive, including a 123-50 loss to the Ryukyu Golden Kings in December, but recovered to finish 22-30. Then-newcomer Verdell Jones III, an Indiana University product, and Taishiro Shimizu formed a potent backcourt duo after the aforementioned players’ departure.
Now in his first full season with the HeatDevils, Jones has continued his stellar play. He’s the team’s leading scorer (18.9 points per game, fourth-best average in the league), while providing 4.6 assists a game (sixth in the league in that department).
Shimizu, who has played in the bj-league since the first season in 2005-06 (a longtime Saitama Broncos player, he spent two seasons with the Miyazaki Shining Suns before moving on to Oita before last season tipped off), remains an important leader and playmaker, averaging 13.8 points a game. He has 61 assists and 24 steals through Sunday. He is fifth in 3-point shooting accuracy (42.5 percent, 37-for-87) and tied for second in minutes played (664).
More significant, the HeatDevils (11-7) are tied with the Kyoto Hannaryz for second place in the 10-team Western Conference. Only the two-time champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (14-2) have more wins in the West.
Credit third-year coach Yukinori Suzuki, a Oita guard for many years who retired in 2011 to become the bench boss, with steering the team in the right direction.
“Suzuki’s players play very hard, are disciplined on both ends and play as a team,” Gunma Crane Thunders coach Ryan Blackwell told The Japan Times. “He holds all of the players — Japanese and foreign — accountable. From what I can tell, all of his players have a lot of respect for him.”
Though the HeatDevils have struggled at home (3-5), their league-best 8-2 road record has triggered their ascent in the standings. They are 8-2 in their last 10 games.
Big man Devonne Giles, a Texas Tech alum, has made his mark in his first season in Japan, scoring 14.0 points and grabbing 11.9 rebounds (No. 3 in the league) per contest. Forward Gabe McCulley, a UTEP product, checks in at 12.2 ppg. Former Evessa and Takamatsu Five Arrows forward Shuichi Takada is contributing 8.3 ppg.
In the next several weeks, Oita’s playoff aspirations will be put to the test against several quality teams: Friday and Saturday against Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (10-8) at home; Dec. 21-22 at Niigata Albirex BB (13-7); Dec. 28-29 at Akita Northern Happinets (17-3); Jan. 4-5 at Kyoto; Jan. 18-19 against Iwate Big Bulls (10-6) at home; and Feb. 1-2 against Shinshu Brave Warriors (11-5) at home.
Suzuki commended his players for not being timid against Shimane last weekend, especially 216-cm center Jeral Davis, he told reporters after Sunday’s game, an 88-65 Oita victory. He has instilled confidence in his players and concocted successful game plans again and again.
Weekly accolade: Sendai power forward Travele Jones nabbed Lawson/Ponta MVP honors for helping the 89ers sweep the Aomori Wat’s in a weekend series.
The Texas Southern product had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a Saturday triumph over the Aomori Wat’s and had 18 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals a day later as the 89ers extended their winning streak to six games.
Jones is scoring 18.4 ppg, currently the sixth-highest average in the league.
Making progress: The Shimane Susanoo Magic (4-14) have triumphed in three of their last six games, including back-to-back victories on Dec. 1 and 7 against the Osaka Evessa and Oita. During that stretch, guard Edward Yamamoto has had his top-five scoring games of the season, including 20 points on Nov. 23 against the Bambitious Nara.
Takeaway leaders: Niigata has a league-best 189 steals. The rest of the top five: Osaka (167), Toyama Grouses (162), Akita (157) and Aomori (155). Gunma is at the bottom of the chart with 93 steals.
Upcoming schedule: In addition to the Oita-Hamamatsu series, the following two-game sets tip off on Saturday: Iwate vs. Sendai, Akita vs. Yokohama, Niigata vs. Saitama, Gunma vs. Shinshu, Tokyo vs. Toyama, Kyoto vs. Fukuoka, Osaka vs. Ryukyu, Shimane vs. Aomori and Takamatsu vs. Shiga.
Lottich update: The retired ex-Osaka and Oita star is in his first season as an assistant coach for Valparaiso University, which is 6-5 after a two-point loss to Saint Louis on Saturday.
By the numbers: Ryukyu’s Kibwe Trim is shooting a league-best 63.5 percent (87-for-137) from inside the arc.