Riding a six-game winning streak, the Iwate Big Bulls have climbed closer to the top in the jam-packed Eastern Conference playoff race.
Five foes have 20 or more wins in the East, but sixth-place Iwate (19-15) finds itself in solid position to make a push for a higher playoff seeding in the bj-league’s final season.
The Big Bulls reached the Final Four last May in their third and last season under veteran bench boss Dai Oketani, who moved closer to his native Kyoto by taking over as the Osaka Evessa’s new leader.
After a rough start — Iwate went 2-5 in its first seven games — first-year coach Geoffrey Katsuhisa has led the Tohoku-based club in the right direction, including successive sweeps of the Gunma Crane Thunders, Saitama Broncos and, most recently, Yokohama B-Corsairs.
Katsuhisa told reporters after Sunday’s series finale against Yokohama that he’s pleased the winning streak is still alive. He also noted that the team’s mental toughness was a key factor in the 88-67 victory.
Katsuhisa has worked to reshape the team after the departure of established veterans, including Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge (now with (Osaka), Wayne Arnold (Niigata Albirex BB), Scootie Randall (Shimane Susanoo Magic) and Masato Tsukino and Tsubasa Yonamine (both with the expansion Kanazawa Samuraiz), following the Big Bulls’ 41-11 season.
Power forward Alandise Harris, a University of Arkansas product, has emerged as the team’s go-to scorer (a team-high 16.1 points per game) in his first season in Japan.
Perimeter marksman Patrick Sanders, who put on a remarkable shooting clinic in the 3-Point Shootout (making 24 of 25 shots in the opening round) at the Jan. 24 All-Star Game, is averaging 13.3 ppg.
Former Gonzaga University big man Abdullahi Kuso has been a productive all-around contributor in his second season with the club after previous stints with the Ryukyu Golden Kings, Rizing Fukuoka, Miyazaki Shining Suns and Aomori Wat’s. Kuso, who turned 32 on Feb. 17, is averaging 11.7 ppg and leads the team in rebounds (370), blocks (56) and steals (52).
The Nigerian native’s inside presence played a pivotal role in extending Iwate’s win streak on Sunday, when he finished with 17 points, 21 rebounds (10 offensive) and five blocks. Kuso didn’t flourish on offense (6-for-16 from the field), but crashed the boards for rebounds and went 5-for-5 at the free-throw line.
In an interview, Kuso described the foundation that Katsuhisa put in place when he was hired.
“From our first meeting, Coach Katsuhisa made it clear to me that he wanted to build the team on defense,” Kuso told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “He also told me he wanted me to be an extension of him on the court. Even though my nature has always been to lead by example, I had to become more of a vocal leader (work-in-progress).”
He added: “As a team I think we’re peaking at the perfect time. We played the top three teams in the West for our inter-conference schedule and we endured some close losses but I think we learned some valuable lessons along the way.
“Coach Katsuhisa constantly stresses never to make excuses and leave it all on the floor. . . . I believe we have enough talent on this team to make it back to Ariake (for the Final Four).”
Point guard Kaito Ishikawa, a Nihon University alum, is making a name for himself in his first season in the Bulls backcourt. The 25-year-old, formerly with the NBL’s Hitachi Sunrockers, leads the club with 105 assists against 46 turnovers in 34 games. Tatsunori Fujie, another offseason pickup (Toyama Grouses) is scoring 11.4 ppg, while veteran forward Hayato Kantake is contributing 8.0 and shooting exactly 50 percent from inside the arc. Kantake had a season-high 22 points against the B-Corsairs on Sunday.
Revolving door: The Hiroshima Lightning (1-31) have used 20 players this season. The Lightning, who became a bj-league expansion franchise after one season in the developmental bj-challenge league, have lost 26 straight games. . . . Meanwhile, the Tokyo Cinq Reves (1-33) have dropped 27 consecutive games.
Both teams could match or break the league’s record for futility set by the Takamatsu Five Arrows (2-50) during the 2011-12 campaign.
Back in action: After being sidelined for a year after undergoing knee surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, Akita Northern Happinets guard Akitomo Takeno made his season debut on Saturday.
Takeno started the game and played 11 minutes. He was 0-for-3 from the field against the Toyama Grouses and dished out one assist. On Sunday, Takeno played four minutes. The two-time All-Star missed his lone free-throw attempt and handed out an assist.
League accolade: High-rising Gunma forward Thomas Kennedy earned the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP honor, it was announced on Wednesday.
The Crane Thunders star had 18 points and seven rebounds in a Saturday triumph over the visiting Saitama Broncos. A day later, Kennedy torched the visitors for 40 points on 15-for-22 shooting, including 13-for-17 from inside the arc, with 12 boards and four assists.
The University of Detroit Mercy alum is averaging 22.1 points per game, sixth-best output in the circuit.
Upcoming schedule: The Tokyo-Akita and Hiroshima-Hamamatsu two-game sets got underway on Friday. The rest of the week’s action tips off on Saturday, with these matchups on the docket: Aomori vs. Iwate, Sendai vs. Niigata, Toyama vs. Gunma, Shinshu vs. Fukushima, Shiga vs. Kanazawa, Yokohama vs. Saitama, Kyoto vs. Nara, Shimane vs. Oita, Takamatsu vs. Osaka and Fukuoka vs. Ryukyu.
Success story: Former Osaka and Gunma head coach Ryan Blackwell has led Liverpool High School, near Syracuse, New York, to the Section III, Class AA title game, a showdown with Bishop Ludden on Saturday at Onondaga Community College. It’s Blackwell’s first season at the helm.
“It’s good to get to play for it,” Blackwell told The Post-Standard, a Syracuse newspaper. “I’m hoping for these guys. They’ve worked so hard and they all love each other and work hard for one another, which is very important. For them, I want it for them, more than anything.”
A former Syracuse University player, Blackwell’s pro career also included stints with Osaka and Sendai.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5