It’s time to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Sixteen regular-season games remain on the schedule for each of the bj-league’s 12 teams, plenty of time to make major improvements or subtle adjustments. And in that time, clubs will take stock of their current roster makeup and start to make critical decisions for the upcoming season.

The Rizing Fukuoka (15-21), for example, are looking to build a backcourt foundation under the watchful eye of veteran coach John Neumann.

Neumann hopes that nucleus includes Kohei Mitomo, who turns 29 on March 19, and the 25-year-old Takanori Goya. Both have displayed flashes of offensive brilliance in recent games.

“I think Mitomo is a great player that had some problems and was injured, but is playing well for me now,” said Neumann, whose squad travels to face the Niigata Albirex BB (15-21) this weekend. “Goya is a great all-around player and I hope he will play for me next year along with Mitomo, because this will give me two very good guards to build my team with.”

Goya played sparingly earlier this season for the Osaka Evessa, but appears revitalized after becoming a regular part of the Rizing’s rotation. He had a 13-point debut on Dec. 20 against the Ryukyu Golden Kings and has had seven more double-digit scoring games since then.

In addition, Goya, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 bj-league draft who began his career with the Toyama Grouses, had his best passing game of the season last weekend, handing out 10 assists in Fukuoka’s attention-getting 96-93 victory over the Takamatsu Five Arrows, who entered the game with an 11-game win streak.

Mitomo, who spent the previous three seasons with the Oita HeatDevils, has had two 22-point games over the past six contests, putting up his top scoring numbers of the season. He’s also had nine-, 13-, 14-, and 17-point performances in that span.

Entering this weekend, Fukuoka is 13 games behind the first-place Golden Kings (28-8) in the Western Conference standings and eight games ahead of the last-place HeatDevils (7-29). In other words, they have plenty of opportunities to progress or regress over the next two months.

“We have to play good defense, rebound and get back in transition and give (up) no easy baskets,” Neumann said. “Yes, we have a chance to make the playoffs, but there is still a long way to go.”

The Rizing, who have a combined 4-14 record against the West’s “Big Three,” Ryukyu, Takamatsu and Osaka Evessa, have two more games against each of the three teams ahead of them in the standings. They also have a somewhat favorable schedule — eight home games and eight away contests — over the next eight weeks.

Neumann will continue to give Shawn Taylor, a productive shot-blocker, solid advice on how to improve his scoring output during the season’s closing stretch. Taylor, 24, has averaged 3.6 points per game in the 21 games since he joined the club, but has potential to be a stronger offensive player.

“We work every day with Shawn and he is working hard on his offensive game and playing well for the team,” said Neumann. “If Shawn can stay out of foul trouble, he really helps us.”

Neumann is also looking to ensure that guard Marlyn Bryant, the team’s No. 2 scorer (16.9 ppg), registers points in bunches. Fukuoka All-Star forward Michael Parker is the league’s leading scorer (26.7 ppg), but becomes more dangerous when Bryant scores 20 or more.

Bryant has 12 20-point games this season, and his team is 5-1 in the last six of those contests. He was held to nine points on 4-for-9 shooing in the Rizing’s 78-70 loss to the Five Arrows last Sunday.

“Marlyn is a very important key to the team,” Neumann noted. “Every time he scores over 20 points we win the game. Mike and he play very well together.”

Up next: This weekend’s schedule is as follows: Oita vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (25-11); Osaka (22-14) vs. Toyama (10-26); Takamatsu (26-10) vs. Sendai 89ers (18-18); and Ryukyu vs. Saitama Broncos (14-22). The Tokyo Apache-Shiga Lakestars series began on Thursday and continues on Friday.

Injury bulletin: Lakestars reserve guard Shinya Ogawa is sidelined for one-to-two weeks due to muscle pain in his left side. He didn’t travel to Tokyo for this week’s series, but may return to the lineup for Shiga’s March 14-15 series against Hamamatsu.

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