With the Japan national team winning at last year’s FIBA Asia Championship and then giving some phenomenal performances at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the popularity of women’s basketball in Japan is currently at an all-time high.
The Women’s Japan Basketball League wants to take advantage of that success to promote the league and bring more fans to the arenas in the upcoming 2016-17 season.
According to league chairman Kiyomi Saito, tickets for the season-opening game between the Jx-Eneos Sunflowers and Fujitsu Red Wave, a rematch of the last two years’ WJBL Finals, at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 this Friday are already sold out.
“I believe it’s because of the Rio Olympics,” Saito said at a Tokyo news conference on Monday. “The (Japanese) players at the Rio Olympics performed well. They made it to the quarterfinals, which was the first time in 20 years. I have high expectations that the women’s game will provide even more excitement.”
The regular season will be played between Oct. 7 and Feb. 7, and eight teams will advance to the postseason. The best-of-three Finals will start in early March.
The biggest focus for the new season will be on whether the Sunflowers can remain on top of the league. The Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture-based team has captured the league title for the last eight straight seasons.
The Sunflowers’ new head coach, Tom Hovasse, who had been their associate head coach, acknowledges that winning another title won’t be easy.
“People might say that we’ll have no problems winning the title. That’s wrong,” Hovasse, an former NBA player, said in fluent Japanese. “Winning a championship is a difficult thing. If our players take it for granted, we are not going to win it.”
Jx will look to rack up its 20th league championship — the most in WJBL history — this year. The Chanson V-Magic hold the record for most consecutive league titles at 10.
Hovasse, now speaking in English, insisted that it would be special for his team to extend its championship streak to nine at the end of this year.
“It’s very important,” he said. “At Jx, you understand right away there’s a culture of winning. It’s expected that we win. Yeah, I care about it (the consecutive-titles streak).”
The Sunflowers have the richest talent pool and look well-equipped to retain their championship-club status. But there’s a little concern over the condition of their ace player, Ramu Tokashiki, because in the last couple of years she has played constantly with Jx, the national team and Seattle Storm in the WNBA.
Hovasse said that he would have to give the three-time WJBL MVP some breaks during the season.
“She needs time to refresh,” he said. “Of course, the opening game is something that’s important. It’s against Fujitsu, and we’ve got to really be prepared for that. After that, we are going to talk and try to figure out the schedule where we can give her some downtime.”
The teams that are expected to compete for playoff spots and threaten the reign of Jx are Fujitsu, Chanson, the Denso Iris and Toyota Motor Antelopes.
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