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Final Four to bring curtain down on league

by

Staff Writer

This weekend marks the end of an era.

The final Final Four will wrap up the bj-league’s 11th season. The league will then dissolve and its teams will become a part of the Japan Basketball Association-established B. League, which will include NBL and NBDL squads.

None of the teams competing at Ariake Colosseum on Saturday and Sunday existed when the upstart circuit began with six teams and a dream in 2005.

This weekend’s Eastern Conference participants, the Toyama Grouses and Akita Northern Happinets, entered the league in 2006 and 2010, respectively.

The Western Conference finalists, Ryukyu Golden Kings and Kyoto Hannaryz, got their start in 2007 and 2009.

Of the four teams that have survived the opening two rounds of the 16-team postseason tournament, only Akita advanced to Ariake a year ago.

Last May, the Northern Happinets dropped their second straight title game. So the question becomes: Will the third time be the charm for coach Makoto Hasegawa’s veteran squad?

Three more storylines that could be the focal point of Sunday’s finale:

■ Will the Grouses, led by 2015-16 Coach of the Year Bob Nash, complete their amazing run (13 straight wins entering this weekend) by capturing their first title?

■ Will the Golden Kings, a model franchise tied with the Osaka Evessa and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix with three titles apiece, become the league’s all-time winningest champion?

■ Can the Hannaryz, making their fourth Final Four appearance, secure a trip to the title match for the first time?

Saturday’s conference finals begin with the West clash between No. 1 Kyoto (45-11) and second-seeded Ryukyu (44-12) at 1:10 p.m. After that, the East showdown between top-seeded Toyama (43-13), which has amassed 20 victories in its past 21 games, and No. 3 seed Akita (39-17) is set for a 4:40 p.m. start.

The winners of Saturday’s games are set to square off in the title game at 5:10 p.m. on Sunday. The third-place contest is scheduled to open the day’s competition at 12:40 p.m.

From the quartet of Final Four bench bosses, only one of them (Kyoto’s Honoo Hamaguchi) has been in the league as a head coach since its inception.

Hamaguchi’s teams, however, have not fared well in the Final Four over the years; his teams are 0-5 in must-win games to reach the championship finale.

The 2014-15 Coach of the Year guided the Sendai 89ers to two Final Fours, in 2006 and 2008, and both times his team dropped its first game, falling 79-76 to the Evessa and 88-86 to the Tokyo Apache, respectively. In the 2011-12 campaign, Hamaguchi’s first with Kyoto, the Hannaryz fell in the West final, 79-74 to Ryukyu. A year later, they dropped an 83-66 decision to the Rizing Fukuoka. In 2013, the Golden Kings defeated Kyoto 74-56, denying the Hannaryz a shot at the title.

■ Toyama vs. Akita: The Grouses won the season series 3-1.

Fast facts: Grouses guard Masashi Joho, a Best Five Team guard, helped lead his teams (Osaka, Tokyo, Shiga and Toyama) to 11 straight postseason appearances. Currently, he’s the lone Japanese in the 24-team circuit to be his team’s top scorer (17.1 points per game). . . . Led by Richard Roby’s 173 assists, the Happinets have five players with 100 or more; the others: Shigehiro Taguchi and Kenichi Takahashi (153 apiece), Yuto Otsuka (147) and Ryosuke Mizumachi (104), providing evidence of their balanced passing attack. With 205 assists, Joho had 76 more than Toyama’s No. 2 passer, Takeshi Mito in the regular season.

Happinets coach Makoto Hasegawa played in the Niigata backcourt in the league’s inaugural title game in 2006.

His coaching staff is boosted by the presence of second-year assistant Joseph Cook, who attended Sacramento State and then worked as an assistant coach for the Brampton A’s in Canada’s National Basketball League (2013-14) after working his way up from locker room attendant to assistant video coordinator to Summer League assistant to head video coordinator (2011-13) for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, starting in 2007.

“I have learned a lot from my past experiences, especially learning from different coaches with varying styles,” Cook said. “I think the players are what make the team successful, we just have to get them in the right position to succeed.

“We have a great coaching staff in Akita, we all bring ideas to the table and try to implement the ones we think will be best for our personnel. I am proud of the work we have done the past two seasons

Roby, Akita’s No. 1 scorer (19.9 ppg), said Cook has given Hasegawa’s coaching staff a boost.

“Joe handles a lot of our offense and is a basketball junkie always thinking of ways to amplify our offensive production,” Roby told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

“Joe just being able to communicate with the import players and being able get our opinions and ideas and communicating those ideas to coaching staff (is important).”

Has Cook brought an NBA-style mind-set to Akita?

“Yeah, definitely,” Roby stated. “We try to run NBA-style sets and style of play.”

Roby said that Hasegawa and Cook have a good rapport before adding these remarks: “Yeah, they work well together and that’s a big part of our success.”

Looking ahead to the weekend, the keys to two more victories are, according to Roby, are as follows: “Rebounding, limiting turnovers and staying poised and in the moment.”

■ Kyoto vs. Ryukyu: The Hannaryz won the season series 3-1.

Fast facts: While Hamaguchi is chasing his elusive first title, Golden Kings bench boss Tsutomu Isa is trying to become the fourth coach in league history to win two or more titles, joining Kazuo Nakamura and Dai Oketani, who have two apiece, and former Osaka mentor Kensaku Tennichi, who leads the pack with three. . . . Ryukyu guard Ryuichi Kishimoto joined Joho on the Best Five Team backcourt. He averaged 11.9 ppg, canned 114 3-pointers and sank 88.5 percent of his free throws. . . . Kings star Anthony McHenry, a league legend, led all Final Four-bound players with 70 blocked shots in the regular season.

Second-year Kyoto big man Kevin Kotzur, who attended NCAA Division II St. Mary’s (Texas) University, believes strong fundamentals will determine the outcome of the game.

“The three keys for us this Saturday are solid defense, control the boards and pace of play,” Kotzur said.

“On defense we have to contain their guards’ ability to get open looks at shots. We have to be able to contest every time. We also need to control their pick-and-roll game.

“Secondly, we need to team rebound this weekend. We have to have five guys going for defensive rebounds and be able to control long rebounds coming off the rim.

“Finally, we need to control the pace of the game. Ryukyu does a very good job at playing at their pace. We need to be smart and limit our turnovers to control their fast-break opportunities.”

He added: “This weekend is going to be fun. They have a lot of championship experience on their team, which is going to help them a lot. We just need to play smart and have a lot of poise.”

Kansai showdown rewind: After Kyoto ended Shiga’s season and hopes of a second straight trip to the Final Four, Lakestars star Jeff Parmer reflected on his team’s two final games in an interview with this newspaper.

The Florida Atlantic University product credited his foe for playing a quality series.

“Kyoto had a great game plan against us this weekend,” Parmer said. “The team chemistry and great team play they displayed against us is a huge reason why it was so tough for us to get a win against them this past weekend. Simply they were the better team Saturday and Sunday and they showed it against us.

“But at the same time I’m very proud of my teammates and how they played their hearts out until the end.”

One and done: After one season running the show for Niigata Nakamura’s tenure with the club has ended.

His contract has not been renewed, according to a team-issued news release.

Nakamura, 75, served as the Niigata coach and GM this season, leading the Albirex to a 34-18 regular-season record before the team was ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Iwate Big Bulls.

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp