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Ryukyu favored to win third title

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

This season’s title chase features three teams that have won 40 or more games, and the winner will be crowned at Ariake Colosseum on Sunday.

The Kyoto Hannaryz, meanwhile, are the only one of the quartet returning to Tokyo for this season’s Final Four, having advanced this far for the third straight season under bench boss Honoo Hamaguchi. Even so, they are the underdog, having gone 34-18 in the regular season and then outlasting the Shiga Lakestars in the Western Conference semifinals on May 11 in the mini-game tiebreaker at Hannaryz Arena.

The Eastern Conference top-seeded Toyama Grouses (44-10 overall) have won 13 consecutive games, including a second-round playoff series on May 10 and 11 against the Niigata Albirex BB, to reach the Final Four for the first time in the eighth-year franchise’s history. Of the four remaining teams, coach Bob Nash’s Grouses have been in the league the longest.

The Grouses take on the third-seeded Akita Northern Happinets (42-12), who reached the Final Four in their fourth season, third under 73-year-old head coach Kazuo Nakamura, who led the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to back-to-back titles in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons and will reportedly retire after the playoffs.

Toyama had a 3-1 regular-season record against Akita.

In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Ryukyu Golden Kings rolled to the regular-season title with a league-record 43-9 record and then waxed the Phoenix in the conference semifinals to book a ticket in the Final Four for the fifth time in six seasons.

Ryukyu beat Kyoto in three of four games during its remarkable regular season, which earned Tsutomu Isa, a longtime assistant before being promoted for the 2013-14 campaign, Coach of the Year honors.

Saturday’s East final is set to tip off at 2:10 p.m., followed by the West final at 6:10 p.m. The winners advance to Sunday’s title match at 5:10 p.m., while the third-place game is scheduled for 1:10 p.m.

The Grouses landed two players on the league’s Best Five Team in shooting guard Masashi Joho, also named the MVP, and forward Ira Brown.

The Happinets countered with 20-year-old guard Yuki Togashi, the league’s top assist man (7.9 per game) and All-Star Game MVP, as the youngest Best Five selection in league history and Sixth Man Award winner Richard Roby, while the rock-solid contributions of power forward Ruben Boykin (14.1 points and league-best 13.5 rebounds per game) did not go unnoticed.

Gunma Crane Thunders forward Carlos Dixon believes the Happinets will prevail.

“I think Akita has the edge,” Dixon told The Japan Times. “They share the ball well and had the best point guard in the league. They spread the floor really well. On defense, they take teams out of their comfort zone with their pressure.

“Toyama is a good team, and I think if they have a chance they have to dominate the offensive glass. (Akita) coach Kazuo (Nakamura) always comes up with a good game plan.”

Golden Kings forward Anthony McHenry, last season’s MVP and the 2012-13 playoff MVP, earned his third all-league selection earlier this month.

McHenry’s ability to impact all facets of the game is unique, similar to the way former Osaka Evessa legend Lynn Washington pushed his team to greatness and three championships in the league’s first three seasons.

What’s more, Kings guard Draelon Burns is always one or two plays away from mounting his own game-changing run. They form a dynamic one-two spark, while Kibwe Trim’s inside dominance (58 percent shooting from the field) kept the lethal 3-point parade in full operation, with Burns, Ryuichi Kishimoto, Naoto Kosuge, Morihisa Yamauchi, among others, setting up shot on the perimeter.

The return of Narito Namizato, a key contributor on the team’s 2011-12 title team, to the Ryukyu rotation for the season’s stretch run strengthened an already potent lineup. In addition, to discount league icon and post player Jeff Newton’s five-championship resume and what he means to the Kings’ winning culture is a mistake as big as the distance from Tokyo to Okinawa.

Kyoto’s veteran nucleus — spearheaded by forward David Palmer, a past champion with Osaka and Ryukyu, center Chris Holm, and guards Yu Okada, Kyosuke Setoyama and Hikaru Kusaka — has blended well with younger contributors, including post player Joe Werner, forward Takuya Komoda, guard Shun Watanuki and swingman Edwin Ubiles, a former Washington Wizard.

Dixon believes the Hannaryz and Golden Kings are pretty evenly matched.

“Both have scorers,” Dixon told The Japan Times, (but) I think Okinawa has the edge because of their local Japanese players. Some of the best in the league. Same as Toyama, if Kyoto can control the glass, then they have a great chance to win. That’s gonna be a good game. All in all it’s one game so the games are up in the air.”

Iwate Big Bulls coach Dai Oketani, whose team matched Akita for the second-best record (42-10) in the East before being eliminated by the Happinets in the conference semifinals is impressed with the talent level of the remaining four teams.

“Okinawa is the most talented team in the bj-league,” Oketani, a former Golden Kings coach told The Japan Times. He noted that Kyoto’s familiarity with Ariake is a plus for the Hannaryz.

Dishing out insight with the same passion for the game as any die-hard fan, Oketani told this newspaper that Final Four teams all have a great Japanese talent. He cited Toyama’s Joho and Takehi Mito, Togashi, Okada, Kishimoto and Namizato as prime examples.

“Toyama is the toughest team in the Eastern Conference,” the two-time title-winning coach said, “but Akita has Togashi and he can make something happen. I really love to watch this kid.”

“I don’t know an X-factor or who’s gonna win, but I wanna watch Togashi play against Okinawa, the best defense team, (led by) Newton and McHenry.”

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