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Akita, Ryukyu a cut above at halfway point of season

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

With the eighth annual All-Star Game slated for Sunday afternoon in Akita, it’s an appropriate time to take a look at highs and lows of the season’s first half.

The Akita Northern Happinets and Ryukyu Golden Kings have reigned supreme at home, both winning 15 of 16 games on their own courts. That’s helped them occupy the top spots in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, respectively. Both are the favorites to represent their respective conference in the title game, but there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.

Let’s take a look at what’s happened in the season’s first four months.

■ It’s no shock that Akita’s fans got caught up in All-Star fever, stuffing the (electronic) ballot box. Four Happinets — guards Yuki Togashi and Shigehiro Taguchi and forwards Ruben Boykin and Richard Roby — were voted in as All-Star starters. (The game will begin at 1:10 p.m. and be televised by BS Fuji.)

■ And it’s no surprise that the Saitama Broncos (3-25, worst record in the 21-team circuit) are once again out of the playoff picture. Team history repeats itself this season, and the Broncos, now led by journeyman coach Takatoshi “Big Bashi” Ishibashi, will finish below .500 for the ninth consecutive season. John “Helicopter” Humphrey’s league-high 22.8 points per game are noteworthy, but Saitama does not have the right blend of players to excel.

■ On the other hand, both first-year franchises — Bambitious Nara (8-20) and Aomori Wat’s (12-14) — have tasted success, the latter making a strong push for the playoffs in a watered-down East. Credit Wat’s bench boss Koju Munakata, a former Toyota Motors Alvark head coach, for setting the tone for the team from the get-go.

■ Shifting gears to a ridiculous All-Star snub, one of the most overlooked talents in the league is Yokohama B-Corsairs power forward Marquise Gray, a Michigan State alum. He is fourth in the league in scoring (19.8 ppg) and tied for fourth in rebounds (11.8, sharing that spot with teammate Omar Reed), but was not picked by fans or the league’s selection staff for the All-Star roster.

(A curious reporter has three followup questions: 1. How is it possible that Gray was not given a spot on the East’s roster? 2. Why isn’t he on the roster? 3. In a league that has expanded from six teams in 2005 to 21 now, why hasn’t the roster grown to 15 players per squad so more players can enjoy the All-Star experience?)

■ Three teams have made coaching changes so far. The Rizing Fukuoka replaced first-year coach Mack Tuck, who left the squad due to family issues in the preseason, with Kimitoshi Sano, who has directed the team to an 11-17 record to date. The Gunma Crane Thunders (6-22) parted ways with Ryan Blackwell after a 3-16 start and handed the reins to his assistant, Hiroki Fujita. And the Shimane Susanoo Magic (5-23), who advanced to the second round of the playoffs last spring under original coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, fired Vlasios Vlaikidis after a 5-21 start. New Shimane coach Reggie Hanson couldn’t put an end to the team’s losing streak in his first week at the helm, the skid reaching nine games on Sunday.

■ The Toyama Grouses’ 35-17 regular-season record under Bob Nash last season was no fluke. The former NBA player and ex-University of Hawaii head coach has kept the Grouses (23-7, second in East) among the league’s top — and hungriest — clubs every week. Sure, Akita’s Kazuo Nakamura and first-year Ryukyu coach Tsutomu Isa are Coach of the Year candidates, but you can’t overlook the job Nash has done in molding a consistent, unselfish team.

■ Like Akita, the Iwate Big Bulls (19-7) take a nine-game winning streak into the All-Star break. The Big Bulls are also 10-2 in away games, have two of the league’s top 10 assist men in Tsubasa Yonamine (4.2 per game) and Kenichi Takahashi (4.0) and two of the league’s premier shot blockers in Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge (61 blocks) and Gyno Pomare (47).

■ Under new coach Shunsuke Todo, the Osaka Evessa have fallen back on hard times. The team made a terrific turnaround under ex-Chicago Bulls head coach Bill Cartwright last season — he took over as coach when the team had plummeted to 5-19, and led it to a 17-11 mark over its final 28 games — but has been a model of inconsistency. The Evessa, who are 3-7 in their last 10 games, began the season with 11 new players on their roster. A small shakeup is now taking place; the Evessa released newcomers Marcus Capers (9.1 ppg) and Samuel Green Jr. (3.7 ppg), it was announced on Monday.

Weekly accolade: Nara point guard Tatsuya Suzuki collected the first Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award of his bj-league career on Tuesday. The 22-year-old got the nod for his strong effort in the series finale against visiting Saitama last Thursday. In the Bambitous’ 87-74 triumph, Suzuki scored 20 points, handed out seven assists and collected three steals. He sank 4 of 5 3-pointers and shot 7-for-10 from the field.

In the series opener, Suzuki had a five-point, four-assist performance.

This season, Suzuki is fourth in the league in assists (5.3 per game). He has 149 assists and 68 turnovers for the first-year franchise. After the All-Star break, Nara will play host Tokyo on Feb. 1. The struggling Cinq Reves have lost nine straight and 11 of 12.

Positive steps: After suffering an 89-63 loss to the Kyoto Hannaryz on Saturday, Gunma bounced back with a spirited 112-108 double-overtime win to record a series split.

The hard-earned triumph provided a jolt of positive vibes for Fujita’s squad. Carlos Dixon’s all-around performance (39 points, 11-for-17 from the field, 14-for-15 at the free-throw line, 10 rebounds and five assists) keyed the victory.

“To beat a team like Kyoto is a big boost for us,” Dixon told The Japan Times of the Hannaryz, who have made back-to-back Final Four appearances. “They are a big, physical, and smart team. To go in their place and come out with a win shows that we can play with any team in the league, if we go out and play hard and smart.”

“Obviously it was a weekend with ups and down,” Fujita told this newspaper late Sunday night. “I mean it takes a lot to win the next day after you just lost by nearly 30 points, especially Carlos.

“In my opinion, he had one of the worst games of this season (Saturday, with six points on 2-for-11 shooting), and for him to perform the way he did today was big time.

“We have a lot to work on, but with the addition of (veteran swingman) Jermaine (Green) and the combination of hard work in every practice and game, I can see this team heading toward something very positive.”

Green has played two games for the Crane Thunders, replacing Trey Britton on the team’s roster.

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