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What do the Iwate Big Bulls and Kyoto Hannaryz have in common besides being first-place teams?

Long-serving head coaches Dai Oketani of the Big Bulls and Honoo Hamaguchi of the Hannaryz both worked on former Arizona State men’s basketball coach Rob Evans’ staff before the bj-league’s inception in 2005. Hamaguchi worked under Evans for the 2003-04 season; Oketani was on staff from 1999-2003.

Eastern Conference-leading Iwate rides a 14-game winning streak into this weekend’s games and has a league-best 15-1 record; Kyoto sits atop the Western Conference with a 14-2 mark.

Both successful bench bosses, who have a combined regular-season won-loss record of 547-323 (62.8 winning percentage) through Sunday, remain in touch with Evans to this day.

Said Oketani: “Coach Evans treated us (well) every time. So we want to treat our players and staff the same (way).”

The 68-year-old Evans, now the University of North Texas’ associate head coach, worked at ASU from 1998 until 2006, followed by assistant coaching stints at Arkansas and Texas Christian before he began his current post.

In an email to The Japan Times on Tuesday, Evans expressed pride in the combined success of his Japanese coaching pupils.

“Needless to say, I am extremely proud of them,” said Evans, who also led the University of Mississippi men’s program before taking over at ASU. “They were the most attentive coaches trying to learn that I ever had. Always to practice early and staying late asking questions.”

That work ethic has led Oketani to a pair of bj-league titles (2008-09 and 2011-12 seasons while with the Ryukyu Golden Kings) and a 288-146 regular-season overall record (through Sunday) as the Oita HeatDevils (he was elevated to boss in January 2006 after former NBA big man Jawann Oldham was fired following a 4-12 start in the team’s inaugural season), Ryukyu and Iwate bench boss, the latter position he’s held for two-plus seasons now.

Hamaguchi, meanwhile, is 267-169, with Kyoto’s three straight Final Four trips while at the helm a shiny note on his resume. Overall, Hamaguchi’s teams — he first led Sendai from 2005-2011 — have never finished more than four games under .500 — and he is well on his way to an eighth consecutive winning season.

What guiding principles did Oketani and Hamaguchi learn from Evans?

“I think they learned taking care of details were essential to having a good team,” said Evans. “I think they understand that you have to be good defensively and rebound to be a good team. The big thing about those guys are, they are good teachers with the personality to get the most out of their players.

“They understand that your team must be tough mentally to win consistently.”

From time to time, Oketani and Hamaguchi keep in contact with their American mentor, who reunited with them in Las Vegas in the summer of 2013.

While in the Nevada city, they discussed the importance of character for their team’s rosters, Evans recalled.

“They won’t have questionable citizens on their team,” Evans told The Japan Times. “They made that pretty obvious to me when I saw them in Vegas.”

Indeed, it’s possible that the Big Bulls and Hannaryz could square off in this season’s title game in May at Ariake Colosseum. One fellow with a keen interest in that possible matchup, and all games involving both teams, beams with pride about these friendships and a shared love of basketball that began more than a decade ago. (See below for more insight from a former Sun Devil, who also plied his trade in Japan.)

Up-and-down season: After winning five straight games, sitting at 8-2 and tied for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Niigata Albirex BB have been on a downward spiral. Coach Fujitaka Hiraoka’s team has dropped six consecutive games, three straight series sweeps against three of the West’s quality clubs: Osaka Evessa, Shiga Lakestars and Kyoto, who have a combined 35-9 record.

Despite their struggles, the Albirex have been competitive. Five of the aforementioned six defeats have been by 10 or fewer points, including a three-point setback to Osaka on Nov. 9. The lone blowout loss? A 74-58 decision to the Hannaryz on Sunday.

Niigata, which is 5-3 in home games, plays eight of its next 10 games at home.

Weekly accolade: Ryukyu super substitute Draelon Burns came off the bench to score 14 and 27 points Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in a pair of road wins against Akita. He was named the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP on Wednesday. Burns, a DePaul University product, leads the Golden Kings with 14.8 ppg, and has entered all 14 games as a backup, the spark of the team’s second unit. He sank four 3s in the series finale against the Northern Happinets and also grabbed 11 rebounds.

Upcoming schedule: All 22 teams are on the docket this weekend. The rundown of games is as follows: Iwate vs. Takamatsu, Fukushima vs. Saitama, Niigata vs. Shimane, Toyama vs. Oita, Shinshu vs. Kyoto, Gunma vs. Akita, Yokohama vs. Nara, Hamamatsu vs. Tokyo, Shiga vs. Aomori, Osaka vs. Ryukyu and Fukuoka vs. Sendai.

Update from China: Former Tokyo Apache and NBA big man Jeremy Tyler has played in nine of the Chinese Basketball Association club Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons’ 10 games through Sunday. He is second on the team in scoring (20.6 points per game behind ex-NBA guard Von Wafer’s 29.1 ppg) and second in rebounding (9.4), according to asia-basket.com.

The Brave Dragons are 6-4.

A player’s perspective: This week, former ASU Sun Devils and Oita HeatDevils forward Justin Allen looked back on his time playing under Evans, who helped shape the way Oketani and Hamaguchi have led bj-league teams since its first season.

“I believe that first and foremost — Rob Evans was all about character,” Allen told The Japan Times on Thursday. “He focused so much attention on helping shape us as individuals and men that could go out in society and make a difference. He was very adamant about building the fundamentals that would develop a strong character for each of his players. We had very strict rules about showing up on time, if we were late, we had to run 5 miles (8 km) at 5 a.m. and we would be in the doghouse for a long time if we were not punctual.

“He was all about respect. We had to have our hat off in buildings, we had to use proper language at all times in public, we could not wear earrings during any event where we represented ASU, we had to sit in the first row in all of our classes, and we did a lot of community outreach. He really did a lot for me and my teammates, when we were young and influenced young men, to make sure that we focused on building quality people off the court.”

“On the court he stressed defense, defense, defense. We played an up-tempo style defense that was meant to make other teams uncomfortable and take them out of their game plan. On offense it was always about making the extra pass and playing team basketball. Even when we had Eddie House and he dropped 61 (points in a double-OT game at California on Jan. 8, 2000), it was all about the team and us doing whatever we had to do as a group to win. We moved the ball well, we shared the ball well, we played unselfish, and we always put the team before individuals.

“He also demanded an intense amount of passion and hard work, with zero room for excuses. We worked extremely hard preseason and off-season to improve our game and be in the best shape possible. I can remember 3-4 mile (5.1-6.4-km) runs, followed by sprints up A Mountain (aka Tempe-Hayden Butte), followed by weights and skill work. It was no joke.”

Final thoughts?

“I would say that out of everything Rob was just an amazing man,” Allen concluded. “He took on the role of a father figure and he really loved us. He would always tell us to not be too proud to tell another person how much you love them. Still to this day I tell my teammates that I love them after we talk or see each other and they do the same.”

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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