Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Title hunt tips off for 16 playoff contestants

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

After the long regular season, 16 teams remain in the hunt for the bj-league title.

The three-weekend postseason tournament tips off on Saturday with eight first-round series openers, four from each conference.

The Western Conference’s top-seeded Kyoto Hannaryz (41-11) play host to the No. 8 Rizing Fukuoka (20-32), while the three-time champion and No. 2 seed Ryukyu Golden Kings (40-12) meet the No. 7 Kanazawa Samuraiz (27-23), an expansion team. No. 3 Shimane Susanoo Magic (37-15) face No. 6 Osaka Evessa (35-17), another three-time title winner, and reigning champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (36-16), the No. 4 seed whose third title last May wasn’t locked up until the final seconds, take on the No. 5 Shiga Lakestars (35-17), who reached the Final Four for the first time last spring.

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the No. 1 Toyama Grouses (39-13) vs. the No. 8 Aomori Wat’s (23-29), No. 2 Sendai 89ers (37-15), led by 2015-16 regular-season MVP Wendell White, vs. the No. 7 Shinshu Brave Warriors (27-25), the No. 3 Akita Northern Happinets (35-17), the title runner-up in the past two seasons, vs. the No. 6 Fukushima Firebonds (30-22) and the No. 4 Niigata Albirex BB (34-18) vs. the No. 5 Iwate Big Bulls (30-22), who are coming off their first Final Four season.

Kyoto had a league-record 44-8 record last season, but fell short of the Final Four after three consecutive appearances in the annual final weekend showcase at Ariake Colosseum. (This year, the four-team extravaganza is set for May 14-15.)

This spring, the Hannaryz are again in the hunt for a championship under fifth-year bench boss Honoo Hamaguchi. With Kyoto’s 20-6 record at home, visits there are a tough destination for any foe.

The Hannaryz swept the Rizing in the teams’ four-game series this season, but they haven’t squared off since Feb. 14. What’s more, well-traveled Spanish mentor Josep “Pep” Claros replaced Tomohiro Moriyama as Fukuoka coach on March 11. The Rizing completed the season with a 6-6 record, including a pair of three-game win streaks, under Claros, who has coached in Spain, Mexico, Canada, El Salvador, Portugal, Venezuela and other nations since he got his start at Northwest Missouri State as an assistant in 1993.

Even though Fukuoka has the fewest wins of any postseason team, Hannaryz big man Kevin Kotzur told The Japan Times on Tuesday that his team can’t take the Kyushu club lightly.

“We know this is going to be a tough matchup with Fukuoka,” Kotzur said.

“They have some veterans that are playoff-tested,” he added, citing Josh Peppers, Taishiro Shimizu and Cohey Aoki. “And their young guys are hungry to win at all cost. Their new coach has also brought a winning attitude that can be dangerous, so we are preparing for a tough weekend.”

But for Kyoto, finishing with the league’s top victory total for two straight seasons is evidence that Hamaguchi’s coaching tactics work in Japan.

“We believe that we need to play Hannaryz style of basketball (and) to achieve this it has to start with defense and rebounding,” Kotzur said. “We have to contain and pressure the basketball, and then when a shot goes up we need five guys rebounding to control the glass. We also need to play our style and rhythm on offense, with a lot of spacing and cutting.”

He added: “The biggest thing with this weekend is our ability to play and control their pick-and-roll offense and their ball pressure on defense. Since they made a coaching change, they play at a different pace than they used to, by pressuring and trapping the basketball to try and get turnover and layups.”

Rizing forward Donnavan Kirk commented on the upcoming series and stated that 3-point defense, strong rebounding and a solid offensive efforts will be keys for his club.

Like Kotzur, he said that Peppers, Aoki, Shimizu and others’ playoff experience is significance. “I think their experience is very important and will help us tremendously during the playoffs,” Kirk said. “Experience plays a big factor in playoff battles so I am looking forward to playing with them and having the mental edge.

Ryukyu, meanwhile, won three of four duels with Kanazawa, and Samuraiz big man Gyno Pomare expects a tough showdown for his club. For his team, there are three keys in this series, according to Pomare:

■”Staying hydrated. We know that Okinawa’s sixth man (home crowd) is their heat. We need to get adjusted, and be ready for it. We cannot afford for one of us to cramp up and not be able to play.”

■”Rebounding. Both offensive and defensive rebounds. Getting extra possessions and limiting theirs is major.”

■”Transition. Both on offense and defense. We need to get back, but also run when we can. We have to try and get them tired as well.”

“If we can do these things, I think we should be OK this weekend,” he added. “We must stay poised during their runs.”

Led by first-year coaches Michael Katsuhisa and Dai Oketani, Shimane and Osaka each won two of four games in their season series. Hamamatsu and Shiga did the same in their four matchups.

Before taking the Shimane job, Katushisa had led Yokohama for two seasons and worked as an assistant on the team’s 2012-13 title-winning club. On the other hand, Oketani enters the postseason with two titles on his resume from an impressive head coaching gig while with Ryukyu before raising Iwate to the elite level over the previous three seasons.

The coaches, of course, won’t make the decisive plays on the court. Explosive scorer Scootie Randall is the Susanoo Magic’s X-factor, and the health of the league’s No. 1 rebounder, Josh Davis, who sat out last weekend with a left thigh injury, could be a decisive factor.

Not surprisingly, Phoenix forward Reggie Warren insisted defense will be vital in his team’s quest to advancing to the conference semifinals next weekend.

“I think if we play defense like we are capable of, we have a chance to beat anybody in this league,” Warren said on Wednesday. “I think beside solid defense, taking care of the basketball is the biggest key for us.”

Hamamatsu did a solid job during the 52-game season of taking care of the ball, finishing with 891 assists against 724 turnovers.

Lakestars standout Jeff Parmer, who won a title with Hamamatsu in the 2010-11 season, analyzed the upcoming series by identifying three keys for his team:

■”We need to play with great pace at all times throughout the game.

■ “Ball movement/team play which will lead to open uncontested shots.”

■”Playing tenacious defense is always a key to us winning any game.”

He added: “As a team we feel very confident going into these playoff games against Hamamatsu this weekend. We understand that they want to shoot and make 3s. We defend the 3-point line very well. That will be a huge key to moving on to the next round.”

In the East, Toyama went 3-1 against Aomori in the regular season, while Sendai struggled against Shinshu, going 1-3. Akita triumphed in three of four contests against Fukushima, and Niigata beat Iwate three out of four times.

For the Grouses, Coach of the Year Bob Nash’s veteran-dominated squad follows a disciplined blueprint.

“Coach just asks that no matter what we play hard, smart and together,” said forward Duke Crews, an explosive Bowie (Maryland) State alum who averaged 16.8 points per game this season and threw down 75 dunks. “No one man is bigger than the team. It doesn’t matter who scores the points or gets the accolades; all we care about is the bottom line and that’s winning one game at a time until we win a championship.

“Outside of that, we really focus on defense.”

Crews delivered a straightforward analysis when asked to pinpoint keys for the weekend showdown. He said, “The key to winning this series and any other would just be to play our style of basketball, which is team basketball.”

For the Brave Warriors, who opened the season with 14 losses in their first 20 games before making an impressive turnaround under first-year bench boss Koju Munakata, there’s no magic formula to eliminate the 89ers.

The 89ers were the league’s top-scoring team (86.4 ppg) this season. And Brave Warriors frontcourt star Xavier Gibson was the league’s No.1 shot blocker (2.5 per game). Will he be at the top of his game on defense? His rim-protection skills may be the biggest storyline in this series.

In a Wednesday interview, Shinshu forward Mike Bell, “The most important thing to focus on is defense and trying to contain them as much as possible. As far as offense, we feel we will be fine as long as we continue to take advantage of players’ capabilities.

“We know this isn’t going to be an easy task, but we are excited and believe if we stick to our game plan and play together as a team we will have a great chance for success.”

The intensity of the Northern Happinets-Firebonds rivalry could be fresh on the minds of Fukushima coach Hiroki Fujita and his players, with a chance to avenge a pair of losses on April 2-3 in Akita, including 97-79 in the series finale.

Both teams have an impressive go-to scorer; Akita’s Richard Roby (19.9 ppg) and Fukushima’s Le’Bryan Nash (26.6) were eighth and first, respectively.

Taking stock of the upcoming series, Roby dished out this insight as keys: “Play great team defensive keeping Nash out of the paint and off the free-throw line. Run. Rebound.”

“We have lots of experience in the playoffs,” he noted, “so hopefully that helps us to advance to next round.”

Fukushima big man Stephan Van Treese, a University of Louisville alum, said controlling the tempo of the game and scoring in transition are keys for his teams.

He added: “We need to rebound defensively, and overall just play great defense. We have the best scorer in the league on our team. We need to defend.

“I’m excited for this matchup. Akita is a strong team in this league and we are looking forward to the challenge at their house.”

Albirex coach Kazuo Nakamura, 75, earned two titles as the Hamamatsu coach before leading Akita to the finals in 2014. Iwate thus faces a coach with a track record of success on the big stage.

Niigata newcomer and perimeter marksman Wayne Arnold, one of Nakamura’s top talents with the Phoenix, joined the team in mid-February and averaged 24.0 ppg the rest of the way, and his team went 14-6 to close out the season with Arnold.

Another new Albirex player this season, forward Ryan Reid, made his mark as one of the league’s top all-around forwards, averaging 17.4 points and 11.9 rebounds.

Playoff format: The two-game series format features games on back-to-back days. If opponents each win one game, a 10-minute mini-game will be held after the second back as a tiebreaker.

League accolades: Fukuoka’s Kirk earned the final Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP honor of the season, it was announced on Thursday.

The University of Miami (Florida) alum had an instrumental role in the Rizing’s two-game sweep of the Bambitious Nara last weekend, when Fukuoka clinched the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. Kirk scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebound in Saturday’s series opener, then added 19 points and nine boards in the finale on Sunday.

In related news, Kyoto forward Tyren Johnson was named the league’s April MVP.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette alum averaged 20 points in seven April games for the West powerhouse squad.