The Saitama Broncos have become a playoff-caliber team under the watchful eye of former NBA player David Benoit.

Now in his second year as head coach, Benoit has guided the squad to a .500 record in the season’s first 22 games.

Is he satisfied with the team’s progress?


Does he think the team can get even better?


After a come-from-behind 80-75 victory over the Sendai 89ers on Sunday at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium, Benoit reminded reporters that his team wants to compete for the Eastern Conference title.

“We are running a tight race right now,” Benoit said, surveying the Eastern Conference. “We are trying to at least give ourselves a chance to get back in first place.”

The Tokyo Apache are the current occupants of that coveted top spot, but a lot can happen over the next 30 games.

Benoit understands this as well as anybody. After all, he began his NBA career in 1991 playing for the irascible Jerry Sloan, the Utah Jazz’s longtime coach.

Benoit hammered home this point over the past week. Instead of giving his players time off from Jan. 1-3, customary holiday time in Japan, the Broncos were shooting jumpers, working on their defensive sets and preparing for the 89ers.

It was, he said, what they needed to do.

The coach reasoned that “probably every other team” was also practicing, so it was important that the Broncos used the time wisely.

They did. And they earned a split in the series, but Saitama is 1-3 against its Tohoku foe, a statistic that will certainly be brought up when the teams meet again in February and April (four more games).

Ringing endorsement: After Sunday’s game, 89ers All-Star forward Bobby St. Preux was asked the following question: Who is the bj-league’s best all-around player?

He responded by saying, “Probably, Jeff Newton. He makes his teammates better. He rebounds, he scores, he plays defense, he passes. He does everything well. If he needs to go inside, he goes inside; if he needs to go outside, he goes outside.

“He goes from Osaka with the best record in the league and now he goes to Okinawa, which was the last team in the league last year, and the (best) this year. No question.”

Look for expanded coverage of the league’s top 20 players, the first-ever rankings of which will be published in The Japan Times, later this season.

Looking ahead: The Rizing Fukuoka (8-14) have a chance to, well, rise in the Western Conference standings over the next few weeks.

Coach John Neumann’s club hits the road to play the Shiga Lakestars (10-12) this weekend. Then, on Jan. 17-18, Fukuoka travels to play the Takamatsu Five Arrows (14-8).

Indeed, from Neumann’s perspective, now’s the time for the Rizing to put together a winning streak to improve their chances of being in the playoff hunt in the early spring.

This week’s other matchups include: Niigata Albirex BB (8-14) vs. Toyama Grouses (7-15), Oita HeatDevils (5-17) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings (18-4), Osaka Evessa (14-8) vs. Takamatsu (14-8), Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (12-10) vs. Saitama (11-11) and Sendai (10-12) vs. Tokyo (15-7).

By the numbers: Osaka and Takamatsu have both won one game in their season series to date. . . . Phoenix center Sun Ming Ming played a season-high 32 minutes in a 91-67 victory over the Albirex on Sunday. He responded with a 12-point, nine-rebound, one-assist, two-block effort, as well as five turnovers. . . . Albirex forward Yuichi Ikeda is No. 4 in the league in minutes played (807). He is the lone Japanese player in the top 10 in minutes. He’s also averaging 15.0 points per game.

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