For Ryuji Kawai, his second season at the helm has the same aspiration as the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s daily message throughout the 2011-12 season: A championship is the only goal. And the high-profile team will aim for that target as a first-year member of the Western Conference after spending the four previous campaigns in the Eastern Conference.

The Phoenix, two seasons removed from their second consecutive title under former bench boss Kazuo Nakamura, looked strong during the holiday weekend’s Seiki Cup in Shiga Prefecture, with three victories in as many days.

Here’s the rundown: Hamamatsu 76, Shiga Lakestars 74 on Saturday; Hamamatsu 77, Kyoto Hannaryz 76 on Sunday; and Hamamatsu 75, Osaka Evessa 62 on Monday.

In the tournament finale, Shiga, 2-1 as the host, defeated Kyoto 72-62.

Lakestars coach Alan Westover was encouraged by the fan turnout and the overall excitement generated by the tournament, the biggest preseason gathering of league participants in the upstart circuit’s history.

“The tournament was a big success, we had terrific crowds, great atmosphere, and the competition was excellent,” Westover said.

“Hamamatsu was the standout team, and will be very good again this year. They’ve recruited well with their imports and Japanese players.”

Westover singled out Hamamatsu forward Kevin Galloway, a Texas Southern product and tournament MVP, as a player to keep an eye on this season.

After a lengthy career in Australia’s NBL as a player and coach, Westover is beginning his second season on the Shiga bench. He has a sharp eye for details about his team and its foes.

Take the Honoo Hamaguchi-coached Hannaryz, coming off their first Final Four season, for instance.

“They have good size, good shooters, good quickness, and a lot of depth,” Westover said. “We were fortunate to beat them, but it was a dogfight. Their new big import (center Marcus Cousin) will be an impact player, and the other three imports (David Palmer, Gyno Pomare and Jermaine Boyette) are very good. Their new Japanese guard from Link Tochigi Brex (Masaharu Kataoka) had a very good tournament, and of course (ex-Shiga guard Yu) Okada gives them a deadly outside shooter.”

What was Westover’s overall assessment of Shiga’s tournament performance?

“We were solid,” he said. “In particular for us, Ray Nixon, Dionisio Gomez, and Shinya (Ogawa) stood out. Our new Japanese recruits (Daiki) Terashita, Jumpei (Nakama), and Yusuke (Inoue) all fit in and played well. Also, our new imports Alfred Aboya and David Jackson were serviceable for us.

“All in all, it was great to have the games, and it was great for our fans. We have a lot of work to do, but are looking forward to the upcoming season with a lot of optimism.”

Meanwhile, the Evessa, the bj-league’s first dynasty and only three-time champion (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08), are off to a rough start under new Serbian coach Zoran Kreckovic, losing their first three exhibition games by a combined 60 points. Under former coaches Kensaku Tennichi, the boss of the aforementioned title-winning squads, and Ryan Blackwell, the Evessa reached the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, including six Final Fours.

In a wide-ranging phone interview on Thursday evening, Kreckovic admitted his team wasn’t prepared for the three-day tournament, saying that his import players had just arrived in Japan a few days ago and the team’s offensive and defensive concepts have not been worked on extensively yet. He said conditioning has been the team’s primary focus since training camp opened but now the Evessa will work diligently to build team unity and develop strong skill sets at both ends of the floor.

(Look for an in-depth interview profile on Kreckovic in the coming days in The Japan Times.)

Some Osaka faithful are already expressing doubts about this season’s new-look squad.

“It’s sad to see those scores,” one league insider told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “That (three straight blowout losses) has never happened in the history of the Evessa. I’m getting emails from fans and players. They are very disappointed. It’s early in the season and the Evessa have gone through a serious makeover. I hope it gets better for the players and fans’ sake.”

Another hoop insider dished out this insight after the tournament’s conclusion: “Regrets? Maybe they shouldn’t have let Blackwell go.”

Also gone from the 2011-12 squad are center Wayne Marshall, now with the Shinshu Brave Warriors, standout power forward Mike Bell and former All-Star MVP Bobby St. Preux and guard Kevin Tyner, all three of whom are out of the bj-league, as well as now-retired two-time MVP Lynn Washington, the team’s undisputed leader since 2005, and guards Cohey Aoki and Hirohisa Takada, both of whom joined the expansion Tokyo Cinq Reves.

One Western Conference coach isn’t ready to rush to judgment about the Evessa’s chances of being a respectable club this season, which tips off on Oct. 6.

“They struggled in the tournament, but will still be a force in the bj-league,” the coach said Wednesday. “They have a new coach, all new imports, and aren’t in sync yet. But they have size and talent, and once they get it together, then they will be tough again.”

Fresh start: The Cinq Reves, led by coach Motofumi Aoki, dropped their first-ever exhibition game 84-59 against the host Saitama Broncos on Saturday, followed by a 64-60 loss to the Broncos on Monday, also on the road. The Gunma Crane Thunders, also a first-year franchise, dropped their first contest as well, falling 91-53 to the host Niigata Albirex BB on Sunday.

Looking ahead: Tohoku’s next expansion team, which will begin play in the 2013-14 season, will be called the Aomori Wat’s. The team moniker refers to a word in the local dialect that emphasizes “something hot” — in this case excitement generated by the sport.

Update from Okinawa: The defending champion Ryukyu Golden Kings defeated the visiting Akita Northern Happinets 98-67 on Tuesday and 87-67 on Wednesday.

Playing under the new 2-3-2-3 format — teams can have two imports on the floor in the first and third quarters and three in the second and fourth periods, the Ryukyu-Akita exhibition series opener was a wild, uneven contest. (This reporter’s view: The new 2-3-2-3 will prove time and again to be a thorn in the side of all coaches, as it will go against the normal flow of the game.)

The Kings outscored the Happinets 29-11 in the first stanza and 37-13 in the third, while in the second quarter Akita put 17 points on the board and held Ryukyu to 12.

A day later, Akita led 36-27 at halftime before giving up 60 second-half points in the loss.

One hoop insider expects wholesale changes for the Tohoku club before the season tips off. This occurred early in the 2011-12 campaign, when Nakamura rebuild his roster, replacing every one of his import players that were signed during the preseason.

“(There’s) probably no time to change them before this weekend, but no chance these same four guys are here when they start the season,” the source said, commenting on Akita’s four imports. “I just wish the league had a rule about how many times you can change players.

“(It’s) not fair to the rest of the teams that work hard to find players and do the best with what they’ve got. Two or three times, maybe, four at the most, then it’s time to change the coaches or staff if you can’t find the right players.

“But the league doesn’t have the guts or the leadership to put rules in like that.”

Closing commentary: Building a respectable fan base takes hard work. And it also takes common sense in order to be successful.

No one said it’s easy to secure venues in Tokyo, but there are options, plenty of them, even school gyms.

The Cinq Reves, unfortunately, with the league’s backing, have booked a schedule that defies logic for their inaugural season.

Their 26 home games will be played at 10 different venues in Tokyo.

Does anyone think the average fan can keep track of where these games will be held? And does the Tokyo front office really expect to attract good crowds when the games are played here, there and everywhere?

As we have seen on too many occasions, the bj-league fails to enforce minimum standards, and this is a clear example of where commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi needs to enforce a tough mandate regarding scheduling.

This will affect Tokyo’s quality of play, the type of media coverage the team gets and the type of crowds that show up for games, and also the Cinq Reves’ won-loss record.

It’s hard enough being an expansion team under normal circumstances, but one without any home-court advantage faces an even greater challenge.


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