TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — Two teams walked off the basketball court on Monday night with identical 5-7 records. These teams, however, have different tales to tell about what they hope to accomplish this season in the bj-league.

Ed Odeven

The first-year Rizing Fukuoka are looking to establish an identity under the leadership of the well-traveled John Neumann, a coach who has collected paychecks in the United States and China, Kuwait and Germany and other nations during a long, distinguished career.

News photo
Saitama Broncos point guard Aaron Sekai Lawrence (left), seen looking to drive past Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki in the Nov. 4 game at Ariake Colosseum, has been a productive player in his first season in the bj-league.

The Saitama Broncos, meanwhile, are trying to become a playoff contender.

For first-year head coach David Benoit’s team, Monday’s 102-83 victory signals a step in the right direction.

The win came a day after the Broncos defeated the Rizing 85-68 before 3,068 spirited spectators at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium. It was a game in which Benoit’s boys held the opposition to 19 or fewer points in each of the four quarters — and that’s no simple task in any basketball league.

Understand this: The Broncos’ potential — and talent — is greater than their record. So is Saitama’s short stretch of success a sign of things to come?

“I think it is actually a great situation for us to build on,” Benoit was saying after Monday’s game, a game in which three starters — Gordon James (25 points), Andrew Feeley (17) and Taishiro Shimizu (15) and backups Mamadou Diouf (22, a day after he scored a game-high 28) and James Davis (11) had double-digit scoring outputs.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Benoit looked relaxed and happy in his postgame chat with reporters.

“Of course I am going to use this to keep motivating the whole team, because this is only a first step for us,” Benoit says.

You’ve got to start somewhere.

The Broncos have been one of the third-year league’s worst teams. They finished the 2005-06 season with a 7-33 record, but improved to 15-25 last season. The team had a penchant for losing a slew of close games; single-digit defeats, you could say, were its specialty.

Now it’s time to turn the page, and these Broncos appear to have the building blocks in place to be legitimate playoff contenders.

Credit Benoit and the team’s front office for making this happen.

Seven Japanese players return from last season: forwards Kazuhiro Shoji, Ryuichi Horikawa, Takeshi Ando and Kazuyuki Hara and guards Kazuyuki Murakami, Kosuke Shimizu and Taishiro Shimizu. And that continuity is an important factor in building — and maintaining — a fan base, too.

All-Star power forward James, the league’s rebounding maestro, is back in Saitama for a second season, and he’s increased his output to a whopping 17.3 boards per game. Nobody in the league crashes the boards with as much ferocity as James, yet somehow he still finds enough energy to be No. 1 in field-goal percent shooting (62.1 percent).

Newcomer Davis, a 215-cm center who tips the scale at 136 kg, is an immovable presence in the middle. The Minneapolis native, who left Lamar (Texas) University after his junior season, took 10 foul shots in Monday’s game in only 19 minutes. The big fellow can instantly change the complexity of the game when Benoit ushers him onto the floor. The reason? It’s simple: He’s the league’s biggest player.

Diouf, a physically gifted forward from Senegal (he dunks and dishes the ball with equal proficiency), and point guard Aaron Sekai Lawrence have also started to assert themselves as key playmakers.

“I think overall the whole team basically is getting a better understanding of how we really want to play as a team,” Benoit says. “I am trying to keep the guys away from (being) so individual and work as a team. So I think that’s the biggest key.

“They are accepting how we are going to play. If we have a certain strategy, we try to stick to it. I think that is probably what you are seeing right now.”

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Neumann’s arrival in Kyushu came just weeks before the season began. He became the team’s Plan B at coach, a replacement for Howie Landa who stepped down as the coach-to-be after a family member’s illness in the United States. Landa is now helping spearhead the bj-league’s new international office during its building stages.

On the day he arrived in Japan in early September, Neumann was forced to quickly explain his approach to the game and hastily develop a working relationship with his team’s staff and players.

It hasn’t been easy.

“You really judge a coach that coaches in a league like this in how well he develops the players he’s inherited, on how well these kids are going to be next year,” Neumann says.

“That’s how you really judge the character of a coach and his players, because, to be honest, we don’t have the money like Saitama to go out and pay the money you are paying for your foreigners.

“We don’t have what Tokyo’s got. We don’t have the money Osaka’s got unless we get a big sponsor or this and that. So we are limited in a lot of ways. . . . This is the lowest-paying coaching job I’ve ever had in my entire life, but I enjoy it.”

What Neumann says he especially enjoys is being a part of the process of building a team.

“It is going to take us awhile,” Neumann predicts. “One game we are great and then down, down, down, up again. So we must become more stable.”

The Rizing have shown a willingness to play a full-court press this season and have used it effectively in spurts. Neumann’s players zip to the spot where the ball is, and apply in-your-face defense, usually two guys are stretching their hands right in front of the face of their foe.

The team’s foreigners, including Jeffrey Price, Joshua Peppers, Ndongo N’diaye and Michael Gardener, have looked impressive in playing this defensive style. And so have their Japanese teammates.

“Our defense most of the games, I think, is anywhere from eight to 10,” Neumann decides, referring to a a scale of one to 10, with 10 being tops. “The problem is offensively we fluctuate up and down.”

Tsuyoshi Kawazura, Masahide Kano, Toshiyuki Chijiiwa are among the building blocks of the team’s Japanese contingent.

But it’ll take time to build a championship-caliber team in Fukuoka.

“I think we’ve got tremendous young Japanese players that need to learn how to shoot,” Neumann says, “(and) how to do certain fundamental things. And I hope that we can do that this year or during the summer I will work on that, because as far as defensively I don’t think there are other Japanese players who play the kind of defense these kids play.”

Another Rizing performer to keep an eye on in the future is Jun Nakanishi, the ex-Apache player who sustained a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 1.

As a result, the team’s depth at point guard suffered a big loss, too. Instead of Nakanishi and Kawazura splitting time in the backcourt, Neumann’s club misses the steady player’s experience and productivity. The duo had been averaging 15-20 points per game.

Nakanishi, a Tokyo native, will undergo knee surgery next Tuesday and remain hospitalized for three weeks before beginning physical therapy.

“I miss somebody that is very, very important to my team,” Neumann reveals, “because he understands what I want and he thinks both like a Japanese and an American. Like No. 14 (Lawrence) is a great player here for Saitama, a Japanese-American. . . And there’s tons of Japanese-Americans that can play in the bj-league and be very successful.”

This weekend, Fukuoka plays a two-game series against the Toyama Grouses (1-13). Then it heads on the road for five straight games to begin 2008.

That stretch of games could determine if the Rizing can reassert themselves as a playoff contender.

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Benoit, 39, has been around the game long enough to know that a two-game winning streak is not a big deal. But it could be the spark the Broncos need to become a good basketball team.

“We still have to always keep in mind that there are better teams and we have to continue to get better if we are going to beat those teams,” Benoit concludes.

For Saitama, this weekend’s games against the Sendai 89ers (9-3), who are tied for first place in the Eastern Conference with the Tokyo Apache, could provide some some big answers.

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