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Familiar foes set to face off in semis

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For the remaining four title-chasing participants in the B. League Championship, familiarity over the years is a common thread.

After all, the Tochigi Brex, SeaHorses Mikawa, Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Alvark Tokyo played often against one another in the old JBL and its successor, the NBL, before the FIBA-enforced merger, along with the revamped Japan Basketball Association, brought the rival bj-league and NBL under the same umbrella for the current season.

What’s changed?

Well, start with the obvious: geographical names are a part of all four teams, with sponsors’ names dropping out.

What hasn’t changed?

A plethora of well-known stars and longtime national team players dot the rosters of the four clubs, including Yuta Tabuse and Kosuke Takeuchi of the Brex; J.R. Sakuragi, Gavin Edwards, Kosuke Kanamaru and Makoto Hiejima of the SeaHorses; Naoto Tsuji and Nick Fazekas of the Brave Thunders; and Joji Takeuchi and Daiki Tanaka of the Alvark.

Specifically, though, the long 60-game season involves preparation for one foe at a time, and the four semifinalists have not met in the regular season since December.

The Brex split a pair of home games against the SeaHorses on Dec. 3-4, losing the opener 74-71 and winning the rematch 74-68. A mere nine points determined the games’ outcomes.

The Brave Thunders topped the Alvark 93-81 on Dec. 23, their 15th straight regular-season win. On Christmas Eve, Tokyo triumphed 106-81.

Then, in the All-Japan Men’s Basketball Championship semifinals on Jan. 8, Kawasaki prevailed 78-71 over the Alvark.

Which brings us to this weekend’s high-stakes semifinal series. No. 1 seed Kawasaki (51-11, including the playoff quarterfinals) faces the visiting fourth-seeded Alvark (46-16) on Friday and Saturday at Todoroki Area. In the other series, No. 2 seed Tochigi (48-14) plays host to third-seeded Mikawa (48-14) at Brex Arena Utsunomiya on Saturday and Sunday.

The winners advance to the May 27 title game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

Speaking on Sunday after the Alvark eliminated the San-en NeoPhoenix in the quarterfinals, Tokyo coach Takuma Ito looked ahead to the next round.

“It’ll be the first time for us to play against Kawasaki since we faced them in the All-Japan Championship,” Ito told reporters. “We want to study them well and hope to have revenge against them. And hopefully, we will be able to play at the Yoyogi No. 1 Gym (in the final).”

In preparation for the upcoming series, Ito noted that the Brave Thunders’ potent offense presents real challenges.

“Obviously Fazekas is so good,” Ito said of the league’s leading scorer (27.1 points per game during the regular season). “But when you concentrate on him too much, then they’ll hurt you with other guys like Tsuji, (Ryusei) Shinoyama and (Ryan) Spangler’s come back (after being injured). So it’ll be very tough games for us to play.”

Brex forward Ryan Rossiter, who led the league in rebounding (13.3 per game), said it’s no secret what makes the SeaHorses successful.

“Mikawa is a very good team with great size and great shooting, they have been together for a few seasons and have great chemistry together,” Rossiter told The Japan Times.

And what are the key to beat the SeaHorses?

“We need to defend the 3 and not give up second-chance points to them,” Rossiter said. “They can score many different ways, so points in the paint and 3-point shots will be key.

“Our defense is our biggest strength, so we are looking forward to the challenge of defending them.”

Been a long time

The SeaHorses last faced the Brave Thunders on March 17-18 in Kawasaki, with the visitors winning 92-65 and 87-78. Star forward Spangler was sidelined with a knee injury.

Mikawa met the visiting Alvark on Jan. 28-29, losing the opener 81-69 and bouncing back in the rematch 85-77.

Ito’s strengths

Tokyo forward Zack Baranski, who played college ball at Tokai University, said Alvark coach Takuma Ito runs the team effectively by delegating responsibilities and capably overseeing the coaching staff.

“The biggest strength is probably they have so many options,” he said on Sunday. “You’ve got an offensive coach, a defensive coach, an assistant coach that looks at it all, a head coach. They’ve just got options for any thing the other teams have coming at us, the different matchups we have, and just being ready for everything is probably our biggest thing.”

His coaching staff includes assistants Shinji Tomiyama, Takahiro Mori, Kenjiro Maeda and Ryota Shiono, who’s listed as the offensive coordinator.

“I think he’s a great coach,” Baranski said of Ito. “He makes the right decisions. I also think at the same time it’s not all about him. He uses his assistant coaches, too.”

Opposite side

Veteran forward Jeff Gibbs suited up for the Alvark from 2010 until 2016 before joining the Brex this season.

Gibbs knows well the success that both teams have had in recent years and been a part of numerous big games between the clubs.

This weekend’s series adds another chapter to his successful career in Japan, with a possible chance to help his new club vie for a title.

Midseason changes

Many teams make a key roster move during the course of a season. For instance, the Alvark brought in imports Trent Plaisted and Jeff Ayres in February, and the moves paid off. The team’s didn’t have a major slump.

The newcomers replaced Troy Gillenwater and Andrew Naymick.

Ayres, a former Arizona State and NBA player, averaged 12.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, making his season debut on Feb. 25, the same day that Plaisted did.

Plaisted, a 211-cm center and Brigham Young University alum, didn’t score on Sunday but was active around the basket and grabbed eight rebounds, including several key offensive boards to give the Alvark a second chance to set up their offense. He’s averaged 4.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in 22 games, providing a big presence in the low post.

B2 title clash

The Shimane Susanoo Magic (53-10) will face the Nishinomiya Storks (45-17) in the second-division championship game on Saturday at 6:05 p.m. at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No 2.

For Storks coach Kensaku Tennchi this is nothing new. During his five seasons as the Osaka bench boss (2005-10), Tennichi guided the bj-league club to four title-game appearances and three titles.

Shimane’s rise

Zeljko Pavlicevic, the Susanoo Magic’s original coach, reflected on the team’s inception in 2010 as a bj-league expansion franchise, its growth and its stunning success this season in an interview this week with The Japan Times.

In short, the well-traveled Croatian coach is pleased to see the franchise playing during the final weekend of the B2 season.

During the team’s three seasons under Pavlicevic, who guided Japan at the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship, Shimane went 24-26, 28-24 and 33-19 and advanced to the playoffs three times.

Pavlicevic praised the Susanoo Magic for their accomplishments this campaign.

“First congratulations to the players, head coach, staff, fans and president (Toshiya) Osaki for a great season,” Pavlicevic told The Japan Times via email from Zagreb. “Because I was the first head coach and with support at that time of president (Daisuke) Akaike, we build a club and step by step we had very good team.

“Shimane (Prefecture) and Matsue had good ambiance with many sponsors, a long basketball tradition . . . political support and, for me, last season Shimane deserved to be in B1.”

Pavlicevic noted the strength of the now-disbanded bj-league’s Western Conference with quality teams in Ryukyu, Osaka, Kyoto and Shiga, Shimane’s former foes.

As a B2 squad this season, sans those tough rivals, other teams provided “easy prey” for Shimane, Pavlicevic commented.

“But the (revamped) B1 will be important,” he added. “Nishinomiya is a good club and congrats for them, too.”

The strong play of the Susanoo Magic and Storks this seasons helps to strengthen the foundation of the sport in Japan.

“I am happy because Japanese basketball with new B1 and B2 did a new, big and important step,” Pavlicevic concluded.

Dropping down

After losses in last week’s survival (promotion-relegation) playoffs, the Sendai 89ers and Akita Northern Happinets have been demoted to the second division for the 2017-18 season.

In a mini-game tiebreaker on Sunday, the Yokohama B-Corsairs edged the host Happinets 17-16. Takuya Kawamura, who had eight points in the 10-minute contest, nailed a buzzer-beating 3 with 1 second left. Akita’s Seiya Ando had 12 points in what became one quarter of elapsed time.

Akita went 18-42 in the regular season, and Sendai had a B1-worst 14-46 mark.

In the hunt

The B-Corsairs and Toyama Grouses will meet in the next phase of the survival playoffs on Friday at 7:05 p.m. at Yoyogi No. 2.

The winner will secure a spot to remain in the 18-team B1 for next season.

On May 28, the loser will face the third-place B2 team (the Hiroshima Dragonflies-Gunma Crane Thunders winner; the B2 third-place game is set for Saturday at 2:05 p.m. at Yoyogi No. 2) to determine which team will move up to B1 and which team will be assigned to B2 for next season.

Quotable

“Nothing against him at all. It’s really fun to play against those guys. Overseas, we are kind of talking to each other the whole game and it’s all fun, and even overseas NBA players are still like a brotherhood.” — Ayres said, speaking about facing former NBA players in the B. League, including San-en’s Josh Childress on Sunday.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.