Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Sixteen teams ready to battle for title in expanded playoffs

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The playoff format was expanded to 16 teams for the bj-league’s 10th season.

There are five 40-win teams in this season’s postseason tournament: Kyoto (44-8), Ryukyu (42-10) and Akita, Iwate and Hamamatsu (41-11). There are also six teams in the hunt with losing records: Takamatsu (17-35), Oita (18-34), Gunma (19-33), Fukushima (21-31), Shimane (22-30) and Aomori (23-29).

Golden Week brings basketball fans an action-packed weekend and will extend to Monday in Kansai with the Hannaryz-Five Arrows series slated for Sunday and Monday, with the other seven matchups scheduled to begin a day earlier.

Here’s a primer on the first round:

East No. 1 Akita vs. No. 8 Gunma: The Northern Happinets were the title runnerup a year ago; the Crane Thunders, who were 1-12 to open the season, secured a playoff spot on the season’s final day.

The Happinets’ Richard Roby is one of the league’s elite all-around players. He was third overall in scoring and steals, sixth in assists and 10th in blocks.

Akita sank 436 3-pointers, second among all playoff teams.

Gunma floor leader Carlos Dixon averaged 18.7 points per game and dished out 192 assists in 50 contests.

The Northern Happinets won the season series 4-0.

No. 2 Iwate vs. No. 7 Fukushima: Big Bulls bench boss Dai Oketani is one of only two current bj-league head coaches who have won titles in the circuit. So his two championship seasons as the man in charge for Ryukyu are significant lessons he can draw upon.

The Firebonds are a first-year franchise.

Iwate’s Scootie Randall (19.7 ppg, fourth overall) is the leading scorer for either team, but the Firebonds’ Verdell Jones III is right behind him (19.6), and No. 2 in assists (5.9). Guard Masaya Karimata had a breakthrough season for the Firebonds, bringing excitement, 15.1 ppg and heaps of steals and assists.

The Big Bulls won three of four in the season series.

No. 3 Sendai vs. No. 6 Aomori: The 89ers hit their stride as the season progressed, especially down the stretch with 15 wins in their last 16 games, and 216-cm center Jeral Davis proved to be a terrific midseason acquisition for the veteran-dominated club. The dynamic inside force finished second among all players in blocks (3.4) and bolstered the club’s frontline on both ends of the court. Kejuan Johnson, the league’s top scorer (23.8 ppg), was named regular-season MVP on Thursday.

On the other hand, the Wat’s have been headed in the opposite direction. They’ve lost eight straight games.

Sendai went 4-0 against Aomori.

No. 4 Niigata vs. No. 5 Toyama: Like the 89ers, the Albirex have been scorching hot in recent weeks. Their 10-game win streak was halted on Sunday by Iwate.

Strength in numbers is a key for Niigata, with a deep, versatile roster led by leading scorer Thomas Kennedy (18.1 ppg), Patrick Sullivan, Russell Carter, Yuichi Ikeda and Kimitake Sato.

For the Grouses, a repeat trip to the Final Four has been the top goal since the season tipped off. Led by 2013-14 regular-season MVP Masashi Joho (16.7 ppg) and bruising rebounders Sam Willard and Joe Werner, Toyama has a solid nucleus.

Niigata beat Toyama in all four regular-season meetings.

West No. 1 Kyoto vs. No. 8 Takamatsu: The Hannaryz have consistently been an elite team during Honoo Hamaguchi’s four seasons at the helm, and, after three straight Final Four trips, still seeking its first title game appearance.

All four of Kyoto’s import players — Reggie Warren (13.4), Kevin Kotzur (13.4), Ryan Forehan-Kelly (12.9) and David Palmer (12.4) — averaged double digits in scoring.

Kyoto had one losing streak — two games — this season.

The Five Arrows are at their best when Dexter Lyons is making plays and inspiring his teammates on offense and defense.

Takamatsu is returning to the postseason for the first time since 2009 under original coach Motofumi Aoki.

The Hannaryz went 3-1 against Takamatsu.

No. 2 Ryukyu vs. No. 7 Oita: The core of the Golden Kings’ 2013-14 championship team remains, with league legend Anthony McHenry logging the most minutes in another brilliant season.

One notable exception: Anthony Kent replaced six-time champion Jeff Newton, who didn’t play this season, in the Ryukyu frontcourt.

Inconsistency is the HeatDevils’ hallmark. Oita also has four players who topped the century mark in assists: Demetri McCamey (166), Naoto Takushi (130), Hiroki Oshiro (130) and Taishiro Shimizu (125).

Ryukyu was 3-1 versus Oita.

No. 3 Hamamatsu vs. No. 6 Shimane: The Phoenix rely on the outside shot (their 483 3-pointers is No. 1 among playoff teams), and all of their players except big man Atsuya Ota are called upon to knock ’em down.

After an 0-11 start under former coach Reggie Hanson, the Susanoo Magic righted the ship after Tomohiro Moriyama was promoted and named the former’s replacement. Moriyama spearheaded the team’s turnaround.

Edward Yamamoto, one of Shimane’s original players, is having his best season as a pro (12.2 ppg, 178 assists).

Hamamatsu won the season series 4-0.

No. 4 Shiga vs. No. 5 Osaka: Former league MVP Jeff Parmer brought championship experience, and a new-look rotation featuring Parmer, Ray Nixon, Yu Okada, Terrance Woodbury, Chris Holm, Yutaka Yokoe and Masahiro Kano gave first-year coach Koto Toyama a chance to guide a solid contender.

The Lakestars haven’t lost back-to-back games since a three-game slide from Feb. 22 to March 1.

Gary Hamilton energizes the Evessa with relentless rebounding and hard-nosed defense. Josh Dollard (19.0 ppg) is the team’s top scorer.

The clubs split their season series 2-2.

League accolades: Akita sharpshooter Shigehiro Taguchi is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP.

Taguchi sank 4 of 7 3s in a 20-point effort against Saitama on Saturday. A day later, he canned 6 of 10 from long range in a 23-point outing.

This season, he made 42.5 percent of his 3s, sinking 131 in all. The Akita Prefecture native averaged 16.3 ppg.

In related news, Kyoto power forward Reggie Warren was selected as the league’s April MVP.

The University of West Florida alum averaged 15.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists, helping the Hannaryz completed a league-record 44-8 season by going 6-0 in the month.

Arena plans: Ryukyu has designated Okinawa City as its home for the future, it was announced at a new conference on Monday.

The Ryukyu Shimpo reported that plans are under way for the team’s new 10,000-seat arena to be completed by 2019 in Koza Athletic Park.