The Takamatsu Five Arrows will vie for the franchise’s first championship without one of their most vital players, center George Leach.

The 210-cm Leach sustained a season-ending injury in his right knee in the Jan. 17 game against the Rizing Fukuoka, assistant coach Kenzo Maeda confirmed on Thursday.

Leach sustained a torn patellar tendon. The injury will require extensive physical rehabilitation following surgery.

“Hopefully, he’ll be back next season,” said Maeda.

Leach, who attended Indiana University, averaged 14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in 25 games. He was the bj-league’s second-leading shot-blocker before the All-Star break.

The Five Arrows will rely on the inside presence of veteran power forward Gordon James to pick up the slack inside as the third-year team’s quest to win a title continues. Takamatsu is also expected to sign another big man in the coming days, especially after veteran forward Isaac Sojourner’s contract expired and he was subsequently signed by the Saitama Broncos earlier this week.

James, the league’s leading rebounder the past two seasons, is No. 2 on the boards this season, pulling down 14.3 rpg. He’s also the league’s No. 10 scorer (19.8 ppg). Those figures should increase in the season’s second half.

In his latest blog entry on the Five Arrows’ Web site, Leach wrote: “I am lost for words for the way the team, staff and boosters have treated me this last week before I head back to the (United) States for my surgery and rehab.

“You never really have too many times in your life where you see how much people care about you. As stressful as my situation is right now, so many people have made my last week here in Takamatsu a memorable one. It took my mind completely off any pain or discomfort.”

The Five Arrows are currently 17-9 and tied with the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa for second place in the Western Conference behind the 21-5 Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Valid argument: Shiga Lakestars coach Bob Pierce offered a timely critique of the league’s free-throw policy.

“I think the league might want to get rid of the one-and-one free-throw rule. It does make the games exciting, at times, but it rewards the defense for fouling,” Pierce said.

“Takamatsu shot 36 free throws (on Jan. 17) against Fukuoka, and that makes the game almost unwatchable. I hope the ‘teams being rewarded for fouling’ didn’t contribute to George Leach’s injury, but you could almost see that type of hard foul coming as you watched Sunday’s game between those same two teams.”

It’s the notion here the bj-league should do all it can to model its game after the NBA. And if that’s the case, one-and-ones should be eliminated after this season.

Shiga’s outlook: Coach Pierce revealed the three main goals he has for his team in the second half. The expansion Lakestars are 11-15 and in fourth place in the Western Conference standings.

“Well, first of all I’d like to have a better won-loss record at home,” Pierce said. “All of the top teams have good records at home, and we want to join their company. We are trying to create a basketball culture in Shiga, and more home wins would help a lot,” he said of his club, which is 4-8 at home.

“Second, we have beaten all of the teams in the West except for Osaka, so we have to at least win one of the next four games with them,” he added, noting Shiga’s 0-4 record against the Evessa.

The No. 3 goal, Pierce said, is for forward Yosuke Machida, the No. 1 pick in last spring’s draft, to provide “more consistent, steady play.”

Machida, an 8.1 ppg scorer, had 11- and 13-point outings against the Golden Kings in Shiga’s final series before the All-Star break. In the previous eight games, he had one double-digit scoring game.

“He put together two good games in a row down in Okinawa right before the All-Star break, “Pierce noted. “We need him to continue to play like that every single game.”

Pierce was also asked what lessons the Lakestars learned in the season’s first half.

He offered this assessment:

“The toughest lesson has been just how rugged and physical games in the bj-league are with teams like Takamatsu, Osaka, Saitama, etc. Young guys like Ray Schafer, Bobby Nash, and even Brayden Billbe, with one year of professional experience under his belt, have had a steep learning curve. It has also been a difficult transition for Yosuke Machida coming from the JBL.”

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