A pair of new expansion teams, the Miyazaki Shining Suns and the Shimane Susanoo Magic, join the bj-league’s Western Conference this season.

Former Japan national team coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, a two-time Euroleague-champion coach, returns to Japan after a four-year absence to lead Shimane.

Among the West’s nine head coaches, only two of them were at their respective jobs a year ago today: the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ Dai Oketani and the Rizing Fukuoka’s Tadaharu Ogawa.

Welcome to the wild, wild West.

The Golden Kings, the 2008-09 champions were beaten in the Final Four last May at Ariake Colosseum, falling to the Osaka Evessa in the final game of Kensaku Tennichi’s five-year stint with the Evessa, which included three title-winning campaigns and five straight Final Four appearances.

Now, the new season begins with all nine teams feeling confident they’ll punch their ticket to the playoffs. Six of these clubs will earn a spot in the playoffs.

So how do the teams stack up?

Here’s a rundown on each of the clubs:

Kyoto Hannaryz

(17-35 in 2009-10)

Kazuto Aono inherits a talented team in transition. A team built to make the playoffs this season under the rookie head coach.

But, as Aono noted in a recent interview with The Japan Times, each team rebuilds every offseason due to the league’s maximum one-year contracts. So Kyoto is no different in that regard.

Returning standout Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a 41-year-old former NBA guard, is a valuable leader on and off the court. He should be expected to score 15-20 points per game and continue to give the team’s younger players pointers on game preparation and in-game adjustments.

Newcomers Reggie Warren and Wendell White have both experienced considerable success on previous bj-league teams.

Warren, a hard-nosed power forward, helped the Takamatsu Five Arrows reach the title game in 2007. He’s averaged 19.4 points and 11.3 rebounds over three seasons here.

White, who sees time at shooting guard and small forward, was the league’s regular-season MVP in 2009-10, playing a starring role for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix.

NBA Development League veterans Michael Fey and Kibwe Trim bolster the team’s interior game.

Guard-forward Kyosuke Setoyama, forward Taizo Kawabe (10.0 ppg last season) and point guard Sunao Murakami are all beginning their second season on the squad.

Sharpshooter Naoto Nakamura, lost in the shuffle in Osaka last season, will look to resurrect his career with the Hannaryz.

Quotable: “We really had a pitiful year last season. We are going through really hard training. What we are eyeing is not the playoffs, but even further. We want to create a team that wins at Ariake (site of the Final Four).” — Kazuto Aono

Miyazaki Shining Suns

(expansion team)

Twenty-seven-year-old head coach Koto Toyama’s poise and management skills will be put to the test immediately. He says he’s gained valuable experience working under Hamamatsu’s Kazuo Nakamura for the past few seasons.

Guard Taishiro Shimizu, a two-time All Star for the Saitama Broncos, has been given an important leadership role for the new club.

He’s joined by Shinnosuke Oishi, Takuro Ito, Hiroki Fujita and Tsubasa Yonezawa in the backcourt and forwards Yuta Kojima and Masashi Takahashi.

Forward Corey Minnifield, a D-League veteran, brings top-competition experience to the table, while fellow imports Brandon Cole and Elijah Palmer are both expected to play major roles in the frontcourt.

Oita HeatDevils

(25-27 in 2009-10)

First-year coach L.J. Hepp, whose basketball roots include stints in the basketball-crazed University of North Carolina (as a student) and Stanford (as a staff member), brings a well-rounded background to his first pro job.

Hepp will count on ex-Stanford guard Matt Lottich, a three-time champion with the Evessa, for leadership and productivity.

Forward Wellington Smith, who suited up for West Virginia in the NCAA Final Four this past spring, adds youthful zeal to the squad. Forward Damian Johnson, who wrapped up his collegiate career at Minnesota in 2010, is another rookie pro. They are joined by center Rolando Howell, a University of South Carolina product.

Yukinori Suzuki and Kimitake Sato are steady contributors in the backcourt, which gets an added boost with the addition of Kohei Mitomo, the league’s Sixth Man Award winner in 2009-10 (9.2 ppg, 85 3-pointers). But the team lost Mike Bell and Ricky Woods, both of whom finished in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding last season.

Osaka Evessa

(34-18 in 2009-10; runners-up)

Can Ryan Blackwell make a successful transition from player to coach? That might be the team’s biggest story line this season.

Power forward Lynn Washington remains one of the league’s top-five players. One of the league’s top 20 players, point guard Nile Murry, has moved on to the rival Rizing.

The Evessa, however, did make a key signing during the offseason, picking up Billy Knight, a versatile leader who is capable of playing both guard positions and small forward. Knight helped the Phoenix capture the title against Osaka last May.

Indeed, the Evessa management had a front-row seat to witness Knight’s all-around abilities.

Guard Hirohisa Takada grew as a player under ex-coach Kensaku Tennichi’s tutelage and is ready to make bigger contributions in his second season in the league.

Center Jason Klotz, a midseason pickup last season, will have the benefit of being with the Evessa throughout the preseason.

Osaka also acquired Masashi Obuchi in May’s draft. He made a major impact for the injury-plagued Golden Kings last season, proving to be one of the most electrifying Japanese scorers in the league.

Rizing Fukuoka

(30-22 in 2009-10; playoff qualifier)

Second-year coach Tadaharu Ogawa’s club could have one of the league’s most explosive offenses.

Forward Michael Parker, the league’s top scorer in each of the two past seasons, returns for his fourth season in a Rizing uniform. Murry’s switch to Fukuoka gives Parker a natural running mate.

Murry’s speed, up-tempo style of play and precise passing will help Parker flourish in the open court. Murry’s rebounding ability and defensive acumen will improve the Rizing’s overall performance as well.

After two seasons in Niigata, Akitomo Takeno, who’s still only 25, moves back to his hometown and adds another talented presence to the rotation. He began his bj-league career with the Rizing in the 2007-08 season.

Well-traveled guard Jun Nakanishi is also beginning his second stint with the Kyushu club.

Jartavious Henderson, a 203-cm center, and 208-cm Brazilian Thiago Cordeiro are the team’s primary inside players.

Quotable: “It’s really working out well and Murry’s fit in really nice.” — Michael Parker

Ryukyu Golden Kings

(33-19 in 2009-10; Final Four appearance)

Dai Oketani begins his third season at the helm. The team begins the campaign with a lofty goal: to reclaim the championship.

Leading the way is All-Star forward Jeff Newton, the only four-time champion in league history. Newton missed 19 games due to injury last season, as the team hobbled into the playoffs. But he remains the team’s most important player and the league’s most consistently superb defender.

Anthony McHenry was the team’s stabilizer last season while Newton was injured. He averaged 12.4 ppg and gave the club solid play-making skills and an underrated defensive presence.

The Golden Kings featured a three-headed monster (Newton, McHenry and George Leach) that produced the majority of the team’s 228 blocked shots in 2009-10. Leach has not re-signed with the club or another bj-league team at press time.

Forwards Carlos Dixon and Abdullahi Kuso, who played college ball at Virginia Tech and Gonzaga, respectively, infuse new talent into the Ryukyu rotation.

In the backcourt, Tsubasa Yonamine and Shigeyuki Kinjo will be challenged to play major roles again, with Kinjo looking to return to the high-scoring form that made him a rising star before a season-ending knee injury late last fall.

Former Albirex guard and 2007-08 All-Star Game MVP Naoto Kosuge may benefit from a change of scenery. His scoring average has decreased in each of the past five seasons (it was 9.5 ppg in 2005-06, followed by 8.2, 5.9, 3.2 and, finally, 1.6 last season).

Shiga Lakestars

(29-23 in 2009-10; playoff participant)

Coach Takatoshi Ishibashi replaces Bob Pierce on the Lakestars bench, but the team’s expectations are the same: to be in the hunt for the playoffs.

Shiga brings back Mikey Marshall, the cerebral floor leader, and power forward Gary Hamilton, the team’s leader in rebounds, blocks, steals and assists. Both will play major roles again under Ishibashi.

Shooting guard Masashi Joho, who flourished under Pierce’s watchful eye, is coming off a career-best 15.0 ppg season. He likes to drive to the basket and also fire up shots from long range (he attempted 309 3s in 2009-10).

Yu Okada, a four-year standout for the Takamatsu Five Arrows, returns to his home prefecture after a breakout season. He became the first Japanese player to finish in the top 10 in scoring (19.0 ppg). Okada also has had the green light to be a go-to guy on the perimeter; he shot 484 3s last season and made 175 of them.

Okada, with 115 steals last season, grew into a defensive stopper under ex-Five Arrows coach John Neumann and should be expected to challenge opposing guards in much the same way this season.

Veteran Takamichi Fujiwara returns as a proven leader, a smart, steady presence at the point.

The Lakestars signed 210-cm big man Mike Muller and ex-Japan Basketball League and D-League veteran Lamar Rice to fill forward spots.

Quotable: “Our offense can score from anywhere. We run a lot. But we don’t have size so we need to box out firmly and play with discipline based on fundamentals. Otherwise, even if we score a lot, it can be ruined if we play poorly on defense.” — Yu Okada

Shimane Susanoo Magic

(expansion team)

Coach Pavlicevic’s well-documented success in European leagues speaks for itself. His presence in Japan will create greater interest in the bj-league among overseas media and hardcore hoops observers.

Former JBL guard and current national team player Takumi Ishizaki is the team’s primary leader. From a historic standpoint, he’s also an important figure, giving the upstart league its first player on the national team.

Ishizaki will miss a handful of games early in the season as he trains with the national team for the upcoming Asian Games, but Pavlicevic welcomes the move. He said “it’s in the best interests of the league and for the sport” to have him get this opportunity.

Center Will Caudle, a former Xavier player, is joined by fellow newcomers Terry Evans, 216-cm Jeral Davis, Reginald Golson and a man with a name destined for a Hollywood movie, Forrest Ray Fisher III. Fisher, a former U.S. Marine who attended little-known John Brown University, has had success as a strong scorer, pouring in 24.7 ppg for the Mexicali club in 2009-10 in the Mexican League.

The Susanoo Magic’s Japanese members include Shoji Nakanishi, a longtime Apache role player, Edward Yamamoto, Koki Yabuchi, Yasuhisa Hikino, Shohei Nakama and Tatsuhiro Yokoo.

Quotable: “I think we have a good team. I don’t think it’s a great team, but we’ll try to make good chemistry and we’ll see. During the season, the psychology of the team can change.” — Zeljko Pavlicevic

Takamatsu Five Arrows

(13-39 in 2009-10)

New coach Atsushi Kanazawa takes over a team that withdrew from bankruptcy proceedings during the offseason and reshuffled its front office as well.

Maybe there’ll be some semblance of stability this season for the Shikoku club, but that remains to be seen.

Rasheed Sparks rejoins the club after a one-year absence spent playing for Tokyo. He was the team’s point guard from 2006-09. Jeffrey Price, who averaged 15.9 ppg in 16 games, is a key figure in the frontcourt.

Center Terrance Farley, who averaged 8.3 ppg in 2009-10, had limited success last season, but now has a greater understanding of the league and individuals in it.

Satoshi Takeda (10.9 ppg) and Shuichi Takada (6.4 ppg) are coming off solid seasons under ex-coach Neumann.

Yuta Kurihara, a veteran of U.S. minor league circuits and the Peruvian League, adds international experience to the backcourt.

* * * * *

Predicted order of finish:

1. Ryukyu

2. Fukuoka

3. Kyoto

4. Osaka

5. Shiga

6. Shimane

7. Oita

8. Takamatsu

9. Miyazaki

* * * * *

Brief Q&A with Takumi Ishizaki of Shimane

Do you feel strange as you are in a different league now?

“It’s been a long time since I’ve moved. And we haven’t played many games yet, so I haven’t felt differently yet. So I’m looking forward to playing in games.”

How would you assess the team’s preseason workouts and conditioning?

“It’s good. Coach trains us strictly and we work hard. Each of us has a mind-set to improve. It’s really a good atmosphere and a mature team. Coach makes us run a lot, and not only that, he is thorough in giving us instructions all the time.”

What are your goals for this season?

“I want to use this season to improve myself. That’s a big reason why I joined this club (because of Coach Zeljko Pavlicevic) and I am hoping to play overseas in the future.”

How will you handle juggling Shimane and national team duties?

“Being on the national team doesn’t bring me anything in particular but I’ve been chosen based on how I performed in the past. I want to bring something to the national team and improve myself to achieve that. That’s for sure.

“It’s a big thing for me to play for the national team. I’ve always wanted to play in the Olympics. Ultimately speaking, making it to the Olympics is more important for me than becoming an NBA player. That’s why I want to play abroad to develop myself.”

Do you think it was risky for you to switch to the bj-league?

“Well, even if it was possible to lose my place on the national team, I was still fascinated by the chance to play at a higher level. I want to challenge myself as much as possible.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.