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Duncan’s impact on Fukuoka puts team in playoff chase

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Rizing Fukuoka have always been one of the most colorful, interesting teams in league history.

It started when the Kyushu-based club hired septuagenarian Howie Landa, an accomplished American college hoops mentor, as its first coach, but he stepped down without ever coaching a game due to a family member’s illness. Then John Neumann, a one-time NCAA scoring leader (40.1 points per game for Ole Miss in 1970-71) stepped in to run the show for two memorable seasons, including an improbable run to the Final Four in the Rizing’s inaugural 2007-08 campaign.

Above all, Fukuoka has been consistent. Exhibit A: Six consecutive playoff appearances. But that appeared in jeopardy during a rocky start this season.

Last season’s head coach, Atsushi Kanazawa, who now leads the NBDL’s TGI D-Rise, was replaced in the offseason by Mack Tuck, who quit without ever coaching a regular-season game, leaving because of family issues in the United States. Tuck’s assistant-turned replacement, Kimitoshi Sano, couldn’t match Kanazawa’s success from last season, when the Rizing went 34-18 and earned the championship runnerup spot. And so management decided to make another change.

Enter James Duncan, who took over an 11-17 squad in late January. Sano returned to his former role.

It’s now update time: Fukuoka has gone 7-3 with the Ontario, Canada, native at the helm, resurrecting a moribund season and transforming into a legitimate playoff contender.

The Rizing now sit in fifth place in the 10-team Western Conference, two games ahead of the sixth-place Osaka Evessa (16-22), who would be the conference’s final playoff team if postseason play started today.

To orchestrate this turnaround, Fukuoka has embraced Duncan’s message: Hard work and dedication to defense are vital.

“I think the team’s performance as of late has not always been pretty, but we are fighting each game and playing for the same goal, which is to win,” Duncan told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “We’ve moved up from ninth to fifth place but it’s not been easy, we’ve dealt with a lot over the last few weeks, new coach, new system, injuries, sickness, a new player (Northern Kentucky product David Palmer) and good teams with much quality.

“But I give the team credit, we found a way to win. But I am not satisfied and I believe the team is not satisfied, which is important.”

The Rizing, who have never missed the playoffs, don’t have time to rest on their laurels. The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (24-12) and Ryukyu Golden Kings (31-5), the West’s current occupants of second and first place, visit Fukuoka over the next two weeks, starting with the Rizing-Phoenix series on Thursday and Friday.

Looking ahead to the upcoming series, Duncan had this to say: “Obviously, they’re a good team in second place, they will be fresh (coming off a bye week) and ready to go. Our mission, our focus is to continue to build in the right direction.”

While Duncan’s commitment to excellence is paying off, it cannot be overlooked that Fukuoka has one of the league’s most talented rosters, featuring five players with bj-league All-Star appearances (guards Jun Nakanishi, Akitomo Takeno and Cohey Aoki, center Julius Ashby and power forward Reggie Warren). Aoki is a new addition this season, while the others all played in the title game last May against the Yokohama B-Corsairs.

The Rizing haven’t peaked. Instead, the team is realizing its potential. Again.

“I think my guys are starting to fit into my system better, but again it’s only been six weeks now, it can be complicated at times,” acknowledged Duncan, who previously coached in Germany and Belgium. “We will continue to take it one game at a time and make adjustments week to week.

“I’m interested to see my guys respond to the challenge that is ahead of us in the next two weeks. . . . ”

Warren leads the team in minutes (1,343), scoring (16.3 points per game), rebounding (11.3 per game, third-highest total in the league), assists and steals. The University of West Florida product has also been impressed with Duncan’s leadership.

“I think he has done a good job changing the mind-set of our team,” Warren told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “Our team was more concerned with offense before he arrived. Now he’s got players that weren’t focused on defense actually giving a stronger effort than before because they know that’s what he wants and you must play defense in order to play for him.”