The expansion Rizing Fukuoka defied the odds last season, winning eight of 11 games, including a wild-card upset triumph over the host Takamatsu Five Arrows, to advance to the playoff semifinals.
Second-year coach John Neumann hopes to see similar results from his squad this season.
“We are short and we don’t shoot as well as we did last year,” Neumann said by phone on Thursday from his home in Fukuoka. “But we are learning and we started OK last year and didn’t jell as a team until really the end of the year.
“Hopefully, we’ll do that again,” added Neumann, who was named the bj-league’s Coach of the Year last season.
The Rizing open their 2008-09 bj-league season on Saturday against the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the league’s other expansion team a year ago, in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.
Fukuoka went 20-24 a year ago, while Ryukyu finished with a 10-34 regular-season mark.
Center Jeffrey Price, high-scoring forward Joshua Peppers and guard Michael Gardener, cornerstones of the team a year ago, have departed. Peppers and Gardener averaged a combined 40.3 points per game last season.
That productivity will be missed, but Neumann will rely on forward Michael Parker, a midseason addition last season, to become the team’s primary scorer.
Parker said he’s ready to handle that role.
“I definitely should get more shots this year just from starting this season (with the team),” Parker said. “That is very exciting.”
Parker made his bj-league debut last January and by the end of the season he had become one of the league’s most reliable shooters, finishing with 204 makes out of 320 attempts from inside the 3-point arc. He averaged 17.0 ppg.
Parker called his shot selection one that includes “a little mix of everything. My mid-range shot is pretty much what I rely on though.”
Neumann expects those mid-range jumpers to fall through the bottom of net with regularity.
“I talked to Parker and said you have to start getting 25 plus every game,” Neumann said, “and he is capable of doing that.”
The Rizing enter the new season with injury problems, according to the coach. Point guard Jun Nakanishi, who is recovering from a season-ending knee injury last season, is not expected to return to full strength until December. He won’t play this weekend.
“I don’t know who I am going to start (against Ryukyu),” Neumann said, “but I will start three foreigners and two Japanese to play the majority of the whole game. But I will alternate them in and out.”
The early portion of the Rizing’s schedule will give the coach a chance to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of his entire roster.
“If we can develop the defensive principles I want and play the way that I want, we’ll be able to compete with anybody,” Neumann predicted.
Veteran point guard Tsuyoshi Kawazura will again be the team’s floor leader.
“T.K., if he plays like he is capable of, he’s a tremendously good player,” Neumann said.
Masahide Haraguchi, Masahiro Kano and Toshiyuki Chijiiwa are among the returning Japanese players who have gained a year of valuable experience playing in Neumann’s fast-paced, high-energy system.
The hard work has paid off.
“Our Japanese players have really come along this year,” Neumann said. “They have really gotten better. They are really the foundation of the team to be honest with you and mixed in with the American players, I think we are going to do very well.”
Among the new players, shooting guard Michael Sturns, who averaged an NCAA Division II-best 26.6 ppg last season at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, will be expected to produce double-digit scoring outputs.
The talented Sturns can put points on the board in a hurry, but in preseason workouts and games he has struggled to makes shots at a high percentage.
“He’s not a pure shooter,” Neumann said of Sturns. “He has to find his way with this team.”
Neumann, who averaged an NCAA-best 40.1 points per game at the University of Mississippi in the 1970-71 season, knows a thing or two about scoring. He also knows the value of challenging players, including Sturns, to improve particular aspects of their game.
“If he’s playing well,” Neumann said, “I don’t think anybody in the league can handle him. He’s got tremendous potential.”
Former University of Alabama-Birmingham forward Brandon Tobias and American Jesse King are also slated to make contributions in the front court.
King, however, has been slowed down by knee problems and remains a question mark for the team’s games in Okinawa.
The Rizing aren’t expected to outrebound most of their foes, but they had a penchant for forcing turnovers last season and turning takeaways into points in a hurry on the other end of the floor.
Similar tactics will be employed this season under Neumann’s watchful eye.
As an old-school coach with roots in the ABA and NBA, Neumann preached the importance of defense to his players as in its first season. That message has been spoken loud and clear as his team approaches the first game of its second season.
“It’s going to take us a while to get the defense like I want it,” Neumann said. “If we pick that up relatively quickly, we’ll be OK.”