The Oita HeatDevils’ reclamation project is far from finished.

A new catalyst has joined the squad, and he’s expected to make an immediate impact.

First-year coach Brian Rowsom dished out the news on Friday, telling Hoop Scoop that point guard Matt Lottich has arrived in Japan and is expected to suit up for the HeatDevils next weekend against the visiting Toyama Grouses.

Entering Saturday’s series opener against the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the bj-league’s defending champion and current occupant of first place in the Western Conference, Oita (5-7) is one of eight teams with a victory total ranging between four and seven.

In other words, the HeatDevils are in the thick of things in the playoff race, and Lottich, a three-time champion with the Osaka Evessa during his time with the club (2005-08), adds a veteran presence to the backcourt. He has a proven ability to rise to the occasion in important games.

“He’s a leader on the floor that can control things,” Rowsom said of Lottich. “He’s someone I really think we need for our team.”

Lottich, a former Stanford University player, spent the 2008-09 season in Germany. In 34 games, he averaged 11.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists and made 35 steals for the Duesseldorf Giants. In addition, he converted 37 percent of his 3-point shots, 50 percent of his 2-point attempts and 80.6 percent of his free throws.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things about him,” said Rowsom, who coached in Qatar last season.

“Adding an established player will give us depth and confidence. He’s been a championship player before. I look for him to help make us a better team.”

Lottich has tremendous court vision, plays well in half court sets and on the fast break and is a dependable scorer in this league (he averaged 20.2 ppg in 2007-08 for the Evessa).

The HeatDevils have two of the league’s top 10 scorers in Ricky Woods (24.5 ppg, No. 3) and Mike Bell (20.6, tied for eighth). But they’ve also had inadequate efficiency at the free-throw line (113-for-223, 50.7 percent), from 3-point range (70-for-238, 29.4 percent) and from inside the 3-point arc (325-for-698, 49.4 percent).

Furthermore, the team’s 209 assists and 213 turnovers are numbers that the coach knows are problematic.

“We’re not satisfied. We want to get better,” he declared.

Rowsom envisions Lottich serving as a stabilizer on defense and helping the offense diversify its attack.

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Lottich, 27, is waiting for his work visa to be processed, and then he’ll make his Oita debut. In the meantime, he can communicate with Rowsom, who briefly played in the NBA in the 1980s, about the team’s strengths — inside muscle (64 dunks to date), rebounding (center Rashaad Singleton is No. 6 in the league with 12.5 rebounds per game; Woods is No. 7 at 11.7; and Bell is tied for eighth at 11.5) and blocked shots (Singleton is the league leader with 4.6 rejections per game) — and its desire to move beyond mediocrity over the next several months.

Blessed with a sharp basketball acumen, Lottich, whom Rowsom calls smart and heady, will attack the basket and help the HeatDevils become a more aggressive team in the process.

Rowsom noted that the 193-cm Lottich is a fearless performer with a penchant for knocking down jumpers and layups with equal proficiency. His on-court attitude will serve as a valuable teaching tool for the team’s Japanese players, too.

Kimitake Sato, Oita’s leading scorer (8.6 ppg) among Japanese players, has attempted only 15 free throws in 249 minutes.

Yukinori Suzuki, a 5.8 ppg scorer, has taken zero foul shots in 240 minutes.

“A lot of Japanese players don’t create offense for themselves and they don’t shoot free throws. They stand around (the perimeter), waiting to take a shot,” observed Rowsom, who urges all of his players to have the will and the skill to earn trips to the foul line and not be timid with or without the ball in their hands.

The HeatDevils have gone 2-0 against the Shiga Lakestars and 1-1 against both the Evessa and Kyoto Hannaryz, while posting an 0-2 mark against the Takamatsu Five Arrows. They are 1-3 against the Rizing Fukuoka. Now they aim to climb in the standings.

By adding a reliable spark plug to the mix, Oita will make its foes work harder at both ends of the floor.

“It’s important for us to have another good scorer,” Rowsom said. “That just makes us a more dangerous team.

“It’ll help us win some close games rather than lose them. . . . I also told the guys that this will take some of the pressure off every one of them.”

* * * * *

Our conversation turned to other topics in the bj-league, including the Golden Kings’ strong veteran corps.

“They’re very impressive,” Rowsom said, mentioning Jeff Newton, Anthony McHenry and George Leach (Rowsom was his coach for the ABA’s Carolina Thunder in 2004-05) as key players for Ryukyu. “They know how to win. That’s what it boils down to.”

Now, the HeatDevils have positioned themselves to be more competitive against the league’s elite teams. They identified one of their weaknesses and made an upgrade, showing a sense of urgency that is often rare in this conservative country.

“The Golden Kings,” Rowsom said, “they know how to play the right way, and they know how to close out games. But we match up better with them now.”

Asked which opposing players have impressed him the most this season, Rowsom listed Shiga shooting guard Masashi Joho and Rizing forward Michael Parker.

“Joho is a very good scorer,” Rowsom said. “You play excellent defense on him and he’s still able to hit some tough shots. He can create off the dribble and make things happen off the pick-and-roll. I’m very impressed with him.”

Speaking about Parker, who leads the league in scoring (29.3 ppg) after winning the scoring title last season, Rowsom offered this insight: “It seems like he’s always going to get his points.”

Naturally, Rowsom would like the previous statement to always be true about his team, too.

Of course, he’d settle for win after win after win.

* * * * *

Oita management deserved criticism for the team’s horrendous performance last season (8-44).

But things have changed.

Give the team’s front office credit for showing an interest in winning.

And it’ll be interesting to see how the intriguing second chapter of Rowsom’s tenure in Oita unfolds.


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