Basketball / BJ-League

Iwate likely to emerge as power in Eastern Conference

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

In the rapidly changing bj-league, the Eastern Conference welcomes a pair of new franchise — the Gunma Crane Thunders and Tokyo Cinq Reves — to the fold this season, while the mighty Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, a three-time finalist and two-time champion, shift to the Western Conference.

Only four teams have the same head coaches from opening day a year ago: Kazuo Nakamura (Akita Northern Happinets), Bob Pierce (Sendai 89ers), Reggie Geary (Yokohama B-Corsairs) and Matt Garrison (Niigata Albirex BB). Interestingly enough, all four men are entering year two with those teams. Of the four, Pierce and Nakamura the longest-tenured coaches in the East, with both entering the league in 2008, when the Shiga Lakestars, Pierce’s first bj-league bench boss gig, and Nakamura, who guided the OSG Phoenix before and after their defection from the JBL. Geary faces a tough challenge to make the playoffs or the Final Four again in the 11-team conference.

There are other familiar faces among the East’s coaching ranks, notably Motofumi Aoki, the only sideline supervisor in league history to be hired to run the show for four franchises, starting with the Takamatsu Five Arrows (2006-09), now-defunct Tokyo Apache (2009-10), Shinshu Brave Warriors (2010-11) and now the expansion Cinq Reves, with which he’ll reunite with longtime Apache star and six-time All-Star Cohey Aoki, who suited up for the Osaka Evessa last season.

What’s more, two-time title-winning coach Dai Oketani, who guided the Ryukyu Golden Kings to prominence over the past four seasons, has a fresh start in Tohoku. Oketani’s Iwate Big Bulls are 2-0 after a weekend sweep — 88-82 in the opener and 94-85 in the rematch — over the host Albirex.

The Toyama Grouses, led by ex-NBA forward Bob Nash, are also 2-0, having swept the Crane Thunders, 96-90 and 87-74. Gunma’s first-year coach is Tadashi Hayashi, a 50-year-old former college coach.

Only eight teams were in action over the three-day weekend. The rest of the 21-team circuit’s clubs will complete their first or second series on Sunday, including Tokyo, which is set to open its inaugural season on the road against the Chiba Jets, now led by 31-year-old boss Shinji Tomiyama, who took over as head coach in Iwate last winter to finish the season after Vlasios Vlaikidis resigned and returned to his native Greece following a 7-19 start.

Here’s a rundown of the East’s 11 squads:

Akita Northern Happinets

The third-year franchise went 28-24 last season to reach the postseason for the second straight time.

Gone: Superstar Ricky Woods, who averaged 20.6 points per game, gunner Kyle Swanston (19.2 ppg), post player E.J. Drayton and guard Mychal Kearse.

Back: Veteran mainstays Ryosuke Mizumachi and 41-year-old Makoto Hasegawa, the league’s oldest player, in the backcourt, along with forwards Yuki Kikuchi, Kazuhiro Shoji and center Yoshimune Sano.

Guard Shigehiro Taguchi, just 22, made solid contributions down the stretch last season, primarily as an outside shooting threat. Guard Yuki Yamaguchi and forward Makoto Kato are other bj-league veterans on the roster.

Newcomers: Forward T.J. Cummings, the son of longtime NBA standout Terry Cummings posted big numbers for the Oita HeatDevils last season (21.1 ppg and dominant rebounding), Jordan DeMercy (Georgetown College, an NAIA school in Kentucky) guard Dion Harris (Michigan, with pro stops in Europe, Asia and South America), center Anthony Kent (Ball State).

Noteworthy: Keep an eye on rookie guard Samuel Sawaji, who was raised in Kanagawa Prefecture and played high school ball at Nile C. Kinnick on Yokosuka Naval Base. He was picked in the second-round of the bj-league draft. His given name is Sam Green Jr. His father, Sam Sr., is an American and his mother, Noriko, is Japanese. He was a walk-on for Gordon College, a community college in Barnesville, Georgia, last season.

Outlook: Nakamura’s teams have played at a fast, furious tempo since he entered the bj-league. The’ve also had winning seasons every year. And if players aren’t producing to his high standards or if he feels the need to make a change, the 71-year-old bench boss will make a roster move. Expect more of the same.

Chiba Jets

As an expansion team, the Jets posted an 18-34 record last season, tying for the second-worst winning percentage in the East.

Gone: Head coach Eric Gardow parted ways with the club after the season ended. A pair of 20-point scorers in Maurice Hargrow and Jamel Staten also didn’t return. Big men Antoine Broxsie and Gaston Moliva are not on the Chiba roster, either, while reserve guard Chris Sasaki left and signed to play for his hometown Tokyo team.

Back: Shooting guard Takaki Ishida (8.2 ppg), who had several strong double-digit scoring games a season ago, point guard Kensuke Tanaka, two seasons removed from winning Most Improved Player award while with the Apache, and a pair of his former Apache teammates, forwards Reina Itakura and Tomoya Nakamura, the latter of whom has played in the league since its inception in 2005, as well as veteran guard Hiroki Sato.

Newcomers: Guard Masaya Karimata, guard D’Andre Bell (Georgia Tech), forward Serge Angounou (Arizona State) and center Joe Werner (Wisconsin-La Crosse) and power forward Marquin Chandler (San Jose State).

Outlook: The Jets are playing out a lame-duck season before joining the rebranded National Basketball League (currently the JBL) after the season, so there will be plenty of distractions in the front office. If the team finishes .500, it will be a pleasant surprise.

Gunma Crane Thunders

The new franchise now has two games in the books. That’s the entirety of their brief history. But it’s a start.

The roster includes veteran guards Shingo Okada and Kenya Tomori, who were steady contributors for the Phoenix, and Keijiro Tsutsumi, a former Rizing Fukuoka and Takamatsu Five Arrows guard. In the frontcourt, big men Lewis Witcher (Miyazaki Shining Suns) and Nyika Williams (Takamatsu) have bj-league experience, as does guard Yutaka Suzuki, who appeared in 52 games for Shinshu in 2011-12. Okada brings a pair of Hamamatsu championships to the mix as valuable lessons for his club.

The team’s other imports are forwards Thomas Granado (Hope International University) and Damien Brown (Averett University). No.1 draft pick Noriyuki Sugasawa played for the TGI D-Rise in the JBL2 last season; guard Yuto Okumoto also has D-Rise experience on his resume.

Outlook: A 20-win season would be highly respectable for the new team.

Iwate Big Bulls

Oketani’s club has its eyes set on a title after a 19-33 inaugural campaign. Just glance at the team’s website, where the words “road to championship 2012-13” are featured prominently.

Gone: Center Shawn Malloy and forwards Thomas Kennedy (now with Yokohama) and Gordon Klaiber (now in Greece).

Newcomers: High-scoring Carlos Dixon (Ryukyu, Fukuoka), versatile forward Lawrence Blackledge (a 15-point, 10-block, eight-rebound game on Sunday, for instance) and muscular forward Reggie Okosa add experience to the frontline alongside Dillion Sneed, who earned a championship with the Golden Kings in May. Haruyuki Ishibashi, younger brother of the Shinshu coach, will turn 39 in December and brings ample experience to the team after stints with Osaka Evessa, Shiga Lakestars and Kyoto Hannaryz. Longtime Sendai 89er Kenichi Takahashi, coming off an injury-plagued, subpar season, had two 20-point games in the opening series. Sharpshooter Naoto Nakamura, who starred for the Evessa during their championship era, also moved north to the Tohoku club after suiting up for Kyoto the past two seasons.

Back: Guards Makoto Sawaguchi, a two-time All-Star, and Yoshiaki Yamamoto endured the ups and downs of an inaugural season.

Outlook: Oketani’s track record of success in Ryukyu and his competitive Oita HeatDevils teams indicate this team is built to win now, poised to reach the playoffs and could be a Final Four contender.

Niigata Albirex BB

The Albirex were in the thick of things in the East in 2011-12, finishing with a 28-24 record.

Gone: Hard-working Dwight Gordon and Erron Maxey, both of whom were solid contributors in Garrison’s first season at the helm.

Newcomers: Macho forward Rodney Webb, a D-League veteran, is back in Niigata for a second stint. Marquise Gray, a Michigan State product, brings a big body to the frontline.

Back: Rebounding maestro Chris Holm, point guard Nile Murry, small forward Yuichi Ikeda, sharpshooter Shuhei Komatsu and explosive guard Kimitake Sato form the nucleus of the consistently solid team.

Outlook: The Albirex are vying to reach the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.

Saitama Broncos

Coming off their seventh non-winning season (16-36 overall, worst record in the East) since the league was established the ever-present rebuilding project is the mission once again this season under new coach Tracy Williams.

Gone: Steady guard Yasuaki Arai has moved on to the Sendai 89ers and Daiki Terashita now plays for Shiga. Forward John Flowers, disgruntled point guard Kenny Satterfield and post player Jayme Miller have left.

Newcomers: Guard Kosuke Yahata (Jets), forward Yuki Nobuhira (Happinets) and Takuma Yamashiro (Grouses) and forwards Antwan Scott and Randy Orr.

Back: High-scoring, highlight-reel veteran John “Helicopter” Humphrey is with the team for a second year along with mainstays Masahide Haraguchi and Yuki Kitamuki. The rest of the squad is virtually a new cast.

Outlook: There are zero expectations for the Broncos to be a respectable team, what with the team’s track record of failure from day one in this league and a revolving-door policy that has produced disastrous results year after year. Until proven otherwise, Saitama is the laughingstock of the East and a sore spot for the league.

Sendai 89ers

Essentially, the 89ers were starting all over again last fall after the March 11 disasters forced the team to suspend operations. and the team’s entire staff was out of contracts, including original coach Honoo Hamaguchi. Pierce did a solid job guiding the team last season, and Sendai went 25-27 and earned a playoff spot.

Gone: Shot-blocking big man Rashaad Singleton, Croatian forward Filip Toncinic, do-it-all forward Johnny Dukes and perimeter marksman Dan Fitzgerald have all become ex-89ers.

Newcomers: University of the Pacific product Sam Willard is a 205-cm addition to the frontline, with 203-cm Northwestern alum Kevin Coble in the rotation along with Karron Clarke, who attended DePaul.

Back: Guard/captain Takehiko Shimura, backcourt mate Hikaru Kusaka and forward Takuya Komoda have played key roles for the club, with Shimura’s passing and gutsy personality inspiring his teammates.

Outlook: The 89ers should be in the playoff race and could be a force to be reckoned with if the players jell quickly and play consistently.

Shinshu Brave Warriors

New coach Takatoshi “Big Bashi” Ishibashi was the assistant last season, so he’s a familiar face to the returning players, fans and front-office staff. A popular figure around the league, Ishibashi will work diligently to mark his stamp on the franchise, which went 18-34 under Aoki, but will he be given the time to do so? His stint in charge in Shiga lasted less than a half-season.

Gone: Heady guard Derek Raivio, whose overall brilliance was once of the league’s top storylines last season has taken his game to Belgium. Center Tyler Hughes and power forward Lee Roberts are also playing elsewhere this season.

Newcomers: Dependable center Wayne Marshall, the man in the middle for Osaka the past two seasons, swingman Jermaine Green, who had a brief stint with the Phoenix a few years ago, and guard/forward D’Mario Curry.

Back: Talented forward Edward Morris, oft-injured guard Takanori Goya, as well as brothers Takato and Yosuke Saito and flashy guard Tadashi Utsunomiya.

Outlook: Raivio’s absence will be felt. A .500 season will be declared a success for this club.

Tokyo Cinq Reves

The new club features a coach, Motofumi Aoki, with a track record of success in this league and the most popular, well-known Japanese player in league history in Cohey Aoki. That’s the foundation they have to build on.

Also, a trio of backcourt castaways — Hirohisa Takada (Evessa), Takuro Ito (Miyazaki) and Yuta Kurihara (Takamatsu) figure to play major minutes this season. Former Hitachi big man Akihito Inoue, an experienced 201-cm player with perimeter skills will be relied as well.

The team’s strength appears to be its interior size with 216-cm Jared Carter (Kentucky), 211-cm Jonathan Jones (NAIA Barat College) and 211-cm Serbian Ilija Milutinovic anchoring the play around the basket, while Rasheem Barrett (Auburn) helps set the tempo from the point. Getting Aoki the ball in pressured-packed situations will be expected early and often; his clutch shooting has increased as the league has grown.

Outlook: A 16- to 18-win season seems likely for a team playing its 26 home games at 10 different venues.

Toyama Grouses

Posting a 25-27 record under Kazuaki Shimoji last season, Nash is trying to make minor adjustments to build a stronger team this season.

Gone: Frontcourt standouts Devin Searcy and Brian Harper.

Newcomers: Forwards Jeremy Jacob (Oregon) and Malcolm White (LSU) and center Angel Garcia (University of Memphis) are getting acclimated to Nash’s system.

Back: First-time Best Five guard Masashi Joho is the team’s bona fide star. He can score 30 points in any given game. Reducing careless turnovers and setting up his teammates are keys as well for his overall success. Backcourt mate Takeshi Mito is an underrated passer and floor leader. Captain Ryuichi Horikawa will be a needed presence at small forward. Post player Ira Brown had double-doubles in both games last weekend, and added 11 assists, eight steals and four blocks for good measure.

Outlook: Expect Toyama to win 25-30 games this season.

Yokohama B-Corsairs

(Note: See team preview in Friday’s bj-league notebook)