Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Fukushima putting pieces together for playoff quest

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Professional sports dynasties aren’t build overnight.

Every team must endure the ups and downs of an inaugural season.

With 34 games completed, the expansion Fukushima Firebonds (12-22) have had some success to build on. In fact, they take their first three-game winning streak of the season into this weekend.

They’ve played hard, they’ve played scrappy, and they’ve made it tough for foes to have prolonged stretches of comfort against them.

Furthermore, the Firebonds are 5-3 in games decided by five or fewer points.

Head coach Hiroki Fujita’s club has endured one woeful stretch this season — eight straight losses from mid-October to early November — but is playing nearly .500 ball in the rest of its games.

Though he’s still only 28 years old, Fujita brings the experience of working for three bj-league franchises (Hamamatsu, Miyazaki and Gunma) as a player, translator, assistant coach and, at the last stop, as head coach.

The Firebonds, who are in ninth place in the 12-team Eastern Conference, have a solid roster that has become more productive as the season progresses. And they are in the hunt for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot.

“We have to continue to play hard and play smart to fight toward the playoffs,” Fujita told reporters on Sunday, when Fukushima outlasted host Shinshu 105-102.

In the backcourt, former Indiana University guard Verdell Jones III is the team’s top scorer (19.1 points) and passer (5.9 assists, No. 2 in the league). Jones is one of the league’s elite talents.

Fellow guard Masaya Karimata leads the league in minutes played (1,270) and averages 13.6 points and 4.1 assists. Defensively, they force turnovers; they have combined for 104 of the team’s 266 steals.

The 26-year-old Karimata has drained a team-high 92 3-pointers.

Point guard Shinya Murakami, who turns 24 on March 5, has started to become another featured scorer in recent weeks. On Dec. 7, he scored 10 points, reaching double digits in points for the first time. He had a 14-point game on Jan. 17 and an 18-point outing on Feb. 7. Overall, he’s averaging 5.8 ppg.

Forward Atsushi Nogami checks in with a 5.9 ppg average. Frontcourt mate Edward Morris, a Pittsburg State (Kansas) alum, is scoring 8.3 ppg.

Northern Illinois 211-cm product James Hughes, the team’s designated rim protector, tops the chart in blocked shots (36).

Power forward Terrance Shannon, who attended Virginia Commonwealth, has been a potent force at both ends of the floor. Dunks are a regular occurrence (42 to date), and he’s contributing 14.3 points and 11.6 rebounds (No. 3 in the league).

One-game ban: Rizing Fukuoka coach Joe Bryant was suspended by the league for one game after the Western Conference club amassed three technical fouls on Sunday against the host Kyoto Hannaryz.

A league-issued news release stated that team members left the bench with 2:02 to play the third quarter and went back to the locker room without the referee’s permission.

As Fukuoka’s frustrations mounted, Kyoto outscored the Rizing 30-10 in the third period of that blowout win.

Bryant will serve the suspension on Saturday.

The Rizing (7-27) have lost seven straight games. They are in last place in the 10-team Western Conference.

League accolade: Karimata, who sparked the Firebond s to a pair of wins over the Brave Warriors last weekend, is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.

The Okinawa native sank four 3-pointers in a 22-point performance in the series opener, adding eight rebounds, three assists and three steals in a strong all-around effort.

He had the hot hand from inside the arc in the rematch, knocking down 8 of 10 shots and scoring 23 total points. Karimata finished with five rebounds, three assists and three steals on Sunday.

Clearly, Karimata is a top candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player Award.

Weekend schedule: The following 11 series are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday: Aomori vs. Fukuoka, Iwate vs. Sendai, Akita vs. Niigata, Gunma vs. Shinshu, Tokyo vs. Saitama, Yokohama vs. Toyama, Osaka vs. Shiga, Nara vs. Kyoto, Shimane vs. Ryukyu, Takamatsu vs. Hamamatsu, Oita vs. Fukuoka.

Coach’s critique: Former Osaka Evessa bench boss Kensaku Tennichi, who led the club to three championships in the league’s first three seasons, remains impressed with his former coaching rival Dai Oketani, the Iwate Big Bulls sideline supervisor.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Tennichi commented on Oketani’s coaching acumen and commitment to excellence, which paved the way for his league-record 300th coaching victory on Sunday.

“He is obviously one of the best coaches in the league,” Tennichi said on Wednesday. “I can remember he did impressive work on his team when he was working for Oita in the second year of the bj-league (2006-07).”

After three seasons with the HeatDevils, Oketani took over for the 2008-09 campaign as the second coach in Ryukyu Golden Kings history and made his mark, helping to elevate the franchise to perennial title contender and two titles to cement his legacy in the upstart league.

While with the Golden Kings, “he always beat our team, but it was fun to fight against his team,” recalled Tennichi, who has guided the Ashiya University men’s team since 2010. “Okinawa has a lot of basketball fans, so it might not be easy to run his team with high expectation from fans and the club. But he always builds up a strong fast-paced team immediately.

“I think he has ability to make a team quickly, which is very difficult.”

Tennichi said Oketani has done impressive work since being hired to lead the Big Bulls in 2012. They are currently 27-7 and one game behind East-leading Akita in the standings.

“In Iwate, he is now coaching his team very efficiently,” noted Tennichi, but pointed out that Oketani does make adjustments and changes things up in his coaching repertoire.

“He did some press defense recently,” Tennichi said. “(His teams) didn’t press a lot in Okinawa. It means, I think, he keeps learning and trying to get better. . .”

Meet and greet: Golden Kings head coach Tsutomu Isa and guards Shigeyuki Kinjo and Ryuichi Kishimoto visited the Yomiuri Giants’ spring training camp on Monday in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture.

The Okinawa Times carried a picture of the trio from the defending champions along with Giants manager Tatsunori Hara.

Did you know?: Toyama’s Masashi Joho is the league’s top-scoring Japanese player (18.7 ppg, ninth overall).

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-leaue or a comment on this story? Send email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp