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Kawai faces tall task in new job with HeatDevils


Staff Writer

Will Ryuji Kawai resurrect the Oita Ehime HeatDevils’ season?

Will the former Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and Shinshu Brave Warriors bench boss find a way to lead the HeatDevils to their second straight playoff appearance for the first time in franchise history?

Entering the season’s second half, the HeatDevils (7-19) are in 11th place in the 12-team Western Conference. They have lost seven of their last 10 games.

Kawai replaced coach Tomoyuki Umeda earlier this month. The HeatDevils went 1-1 in Kawai’s first weekend in charge: a 76-74 win followed by a 67-49 defeat against the Osaka Evessa two weeks ago.

In a statement issued by the team, Kawai said he wants to “build a team culture” for the HeatDevils.

Of course the pressure of winning games will be a big part of that.

The Rizing Fukuoka (11-17) currently occupy the West’s eighth and final playoff spot.

Kawai, 40, was a longtime assistant coach in the Phoenix organization, going back to the days when the club was called the OSG Phoenix and competed in the JBL. He served in that role from 1999 to 2011. The team joined the bj-league in 2009.

As a first-year sideline supervisor, he coached Hamamatsu to a championship runnerup finish in the 2011-12 season after the club earned back-to-back titles under Kazuo Nakamura, who now calls the shots for the Niigata Albirex BB, in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Hamamatsu fired Kawai in March 2013, and he resurfaced as the Shinshu Brave Warriors coach months later. He led the Brave Warriors for two seasons before being demoted to assistant coach this season under Koju Munakata.

In a rare move of a coach switching teams in the same season, Kawai left Shinshu, which takes a 10-18 record into this weekend, midway through the season and returns to a top leadership role.

Kawai compiled a 60-30 regular-season record with the Phoenix and a 52-52 won-loss mark with Shinshu, including 33-19 in the 2013-14 season.

Instant impact: Newcomer Reggie Hamilton had 29- and 25-point games for the Niigata Albirex BB in his first games in Japan on Jan. 16 and 17, respectively.

The veteran guard sank four 3-pointers in both games, dished out five assists in each contest and collected five steals over the weekend in the Albirex’s final matches before the All-Star weekend.

The 26-year-old Hamilton attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 2007-09 before transferring to Oakland (Michigan) University. He was required to sit out a year due to NCAA eligibility rules for transfers.

As a senior in the 2011-12 season, Hamilton was the leading scorer (26.2 points per game) among the NCAA Division I’s 338 teams. (A current Oakland star, junior Kahlil Felder is No. 3 among D-I players in scoring at 25.9 per game and No.1 in assists at 8.9.)

“First of all it’s a blessing to be here in Japan and to be able to embrace and learn about a culture with so much tradition. I’m extremely excited to be able to compete with this team and wear this jersey,” Hamilton said in a statement. “Thank you for this opportunity.”

Hamilton replaced Chris Oliver, who was released on Christmas Day and left the Albirex after scoring 15.9 points in 14 games.

After his outstanding senior season at Oakland, Hamilton has played pro ball in Italy, Poland and the NBA Development League.

Weekend schedule: The following series are on the docket for Saturday and Sunday: Iwate vs. Aomori, Akita vs. Tokyo, Fukushima vs. Shinshu, Niigata vs. Sendai, Gunma vs. Toyama, Saitama vs. Yokohama, Kanazawa vs. Takamatsu, Hamamatsu vs. Fukuoka, Kyoto vs. Shimane, Osaka vs. Hiroshima, Nara vs. Shiga and Ryukyu vs. Oita.

Defensive woes: The expansion Hiroshima Lightning (1-23) have allowed 100 or more points in 20 of 24 games. They have yielded triple digits in points in 12 consecutive games.

The Lightning have dropped 18 straight games.

Paying his dues: Will Veasley, who starred on then-coach Brad Stevens’ title-chasing teams at Butler University, is currently in his third season on the Illinois State men’s basketball squad’s coaching staff.

In August, Veasley was promoted to Illinois State’s director of basketball operations. He had been the team’s video coordinator. He worked as IUPUI’s video coordinator before joining Illinois State, a Missouri Valley Conference school.

An Illinois native, Veasley was a rookie standout for the Niigata Albirex BB during the 2010-11 season.