Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Teamwork has Tochigi flourishing

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Camaraderie pays off for successful teams.

The Tochigi Brex and SeaHorses Mikawa are prime examples of that.

Last weekend when the teams collided at Brex Arena Utsunomiya, there were numerous examples of players encouraging one another, making the extra pass, doing the unselfish things that don’t show up in the box score.

And after the Brex pulled out a 74-68 bounce-back win on Sunday following their 74-71 defeat a day earlier, Tochigi forward Ryan Rossiter weighed in on another key characteristic of both teams: a competitive drive that fuels their success.

Indeed, the series helped serve as a reminder of where the teams are (among the league’s elite) at this stage of the season.

“You always want to play the better teams in the league,” Rossiter told reporters after his 28-point, 16-rebound performance. (They’ve) kind of had the same team, we’ve had the same team for a few years now, so we know each other very well. You always want to go up against the best. . . . It’s just good to get those late-game playoff environments under our belt instead of playing 20-, 30-point wins.”

Tochigi (15-4) and Mikawa (16-5) are among the league’s winningest teams to open the season. The Alvark Tokyo (16-3) and Kawasaki Brave Thunders (18-3) have also chalked up victories quicker than the rest of the league.

The Brex, meanwhile, know that veteran point guard Yuta Tabuse, now 36, has a knack for making big plays at big moments. He can be an aggressive playmaker, both running the offense and on defense, but at times he’ll take on a more subdued role and then — bam! — Tabuse, running at full speed is all over the place.

The ex-NBA player’s three fourth-quarter assists and two steals along with four points on Sunday were vital to the Tochigi cause.

“Yuta, you don’t just give him the ball and say go score . . . He’s kind of so calm out there,” Rossiter said. “And you can always trust Yuta to make the right decision, whether it’s him taking the shot or him making the extra pass. So I love playing with him for four years. He’s the main reason I signed with Tochigi (in 2013), so it’s always good to play with him. In these (down-to-the-wire) games, he always seems to play his best — the bigger the game, the bigger he plays.”

The SeaHorses’ impressive versatility poses challenges for opponents, with the imposing inside presence of 208-cm, 133-kg Isaac Butts providing the foundation. Fellow big men J.R. Sakuragi and Gavin Edwards work well in concert with Butts, and the club’s overall inside-outside offense is a handful for any foe. For instance, perimeter sniper Kosuke Kanamaru commanded aggressive defense throughout the marquee series.

Looking back on the intense nature of the games, Edwards said: “I think both teams are disciplined and kind of do what they do very well. So I think both of us just kind of traded shots back and forth the whole time. . . .”

Edwards considers Tochigi’s opportunistic defense a trademark, noting the Brex’s penchant for turning steals into fast-break points.

The former UConn player also admitted that his on-court chemistry with Sakuragi is a key element on offense of “knowing where to look for each other.”

Rising Jets: Quietly, the Chiba Jets have made a quantum leap into the thick of things in the East Division, winning nine straight games.

Coach Atsushi Ono’s club has displayed high-powered offensive skills and an ability to clamp down on defense.

Improvement has become the hallmark of the Jets (14-7). Chiba’s impressive run has included sweeps of Sendai, Akita, Hokkaido and Shibuya, with a single-game showdown against Tochigi in the mix on Nov. 23.

“I think it took us a while to really learn each other and learn to really play as a team,” Jets forward Michael Parker said. “It is harder to play as a selfless team and it takes a while for a new team to really believe in the concept. Our team success relies on team defense and sharing the ball on offense.”

Frontcourt mate Tyler Stone, a power forward said, “We are getting better as a team day by day, and we do a good job of just taking it one game at a time and having a focused mindset. So if we just keep playing together we can just keep extending the winning streak.”

The Jets are at their best when they enjoy the competition, according to Stone, a Southeast Missouri State alum.

“Once everybody starts getting into the game, it gets more fun. We start playing better,” he said. It’s a wonderful atmosphere, so I enjoy it.”

Parker commended center Hilton Armstrong, a former journeyman in the NBA, for his impact as the anchor on both ends of the floor.

“Our big man Hilton has definitely adjusted now to Japanese basketball and both offensively and defensively our team starts around him controlling the inside,” Parker said.

He added: “Our Japanese players also have stepped up. Starting with our captain Ryumo Ono, who is one of the top inside out threats in the league and causes match up problems everywhere he is on the floor.”

Parker said he likes the Jets’ overall roster makeup and the different skill sets that his teammates have, and gave a brief analysis of three of them: guards Yuki Togashi and Kosuke Ishii and Stone.

“Togashi is probably the fastest and one of the most well-rounded players I have seen especially for being so young. Ishii is one of the best shooters and has a very high basketball IQ,” Parker said. “Off the bench we have Stone who has some of the best one-on-one game I have seen in a long time.

“All that put together we form a strong balanced team and I think it shows because we have six players averaging double figures.”

Togashi recognizes that his team is a work in progress and views the winning streak as a catalyst for the team’s long season.

“We have had issues every game, making a variety of mistakes, but it’s positive that we’ve kept winning,” Togashi said last Saturday. “But we will face teams of other divisions, so we would like to prepare for that.”

There is, of course, room for improvement. Mediocrity on offense can creep into the way the team plays on defense.

“We play badly, we don’t really move the ball offensively and it actually affects our defense as well,” Togashi said. “So we need to improve on that.”

More SeaHorses talk: Edwards believes his team thrives best when it limits its miscues and executes its game plan.

“I think just as long as we do what we do and what we do well, I think more often than not we usually come out on top in those games,” Edwards said.

Asked to assess Butts’ impact for the SeaHorses, Edwards had this to say: “I think he’s pretty akin to like a nose guard in football to where he just clogs up the middle. He takes up space. He gets a lot of offensive rebounds, and he just makes it so that we always have a presence inside — whether that’ll be for rebounds on the defensive end, contesting shots and getting defensive rebounds. He does a great job of really taking up that space down low and really being a presence down there because a lot of teams don’t have guys like him to where they can just kind of control that area. . . .”

Does Edwards sense that Japanese players have an extra incentive when they face Tabuse? During an interview with this reporter he was also asked this: Do they get fired up to play against Tabuse more so than other players?

Here is Edwards’ response: “I think they definitely get excited because he is like a legend out here, so I think that everyone definitely amps themselves up to play against him. He’s a great player. He does a lot of things very well, and I think that allows a lot of Japanese guys to kind of make a name for themselves if they can do well against him, like guard him well or score on him, or just do anything to where they match up well against him, or cancel him out or fee like they outplay him. . . . I feel like that really gives them a chance to prove themselves and make a names for themselves.”

More Brex talk: Tochigi coach Tom Wisman said his team won’t rest on its laurels. Even though the Brex are third in the top flight in scoring (82.5 points per game) the goal is “to continue to improve our offense,” he said. “We feel there’s a lot of improvement there to be made.”

But one big positive has been this: 17.3 assists a game, good for No. 2 in the circuit behind the Brave Thunders’ 17.7.

Beside the positive momentum of winning the series finale before their trip to Okinawa to face the Ryukyu Golden Kings this weekend, Wisman said he was also pleased with the officiating during the two games against the SeaHorses.

“I did say to the referees after the game that I thought this was the best two-game series of refereeing that we’ve had all year,” he admitted. “They allowed the teams to play and allowed the teams to decide the game. And it was a physical, tough game to referee…”

The B. League’s video review system does not give coaches the opportunity to request that a play be reviewed. “So I’ve just asked them that any out-of-bounds (play) in the last two minutes just review it so that the right team gets the ball.”

Keep it simple: There wasn’t a fancy speech or rah-rah words from Wisman to his players during second-half timeouts as the team aimed for a victory on Sunday. He simply told them “to win” and “find a way.”

“We won both fourth quarters,” Wisman added, looking back on the tough series. “That’s something we pride ourselves in. That’s a quality you need if you’re going to be good in the playoffs, to be the last team standing.

“We knew that we could continue to push the ball that the (fast) pace was our ally. So we wanted to run, we wanted to get the ball up the court, we wanted to get in the flow, and we wanted to make sure we got ball reversals to get them to where they had to exert effort defensively.”

High standards: Sure, Wisman wants his team to be among the league’s highest-scoring team. But the veteran bench boss also places a premium on defense.

“One of the things that we demand of our players is that they are two-way players, that they play both ends of the floor. We feel that we have some of the better players that play good defense and offense. (Yusuke) Endo has become that kind of player…”

Free-throw struggles: Rossiter is shooting 48.5 percent (48 of 99) at the line through Sunday. Asked about Rossiter’s shooting woes there, Wisman described it by saying, “I think it’s always mental. It’s something that gets in your head and I’m not a good enough psychologist yet to help him out, but he’ll work it out. He’s a positive-thinking, strong-willed, strong-minded person.”

Defensive pride: After the Osaka Evessa completed a two-game sweep of the Toyama Grouses on Tuesday, coach Dai Oketani stated that post players Josh Harrellson and Xavier Gibson set the tone in the paint for the team’s defense.

The Evessa lead the 18-team first division in blocks (4.2 per game). They had eight blocks in Tuesday’s 98-93 victory, including guard Takuya Hashimoto’s four and Harrellson’s three.

“Josh and X. (Xavier) are a big presence in our house,” Oketani observed. “And also Takuya Hashimoto has great leaping ability and knows the right timing to block shots.”

Upcoming schedule: Here’s a rundown of the weekend matchups: Hokkaido plays host to Nagoya, starting on Friday, with the rest of the two-game sets beginning — Tokyo vs. Kyoto, Niigata vs. Sendai, Akita vs. Kawasaki, Shibuya vs. Osaka, Yokohama vs. Mikawa, Toyama vs. Shiga, San-en vs. Chiba and Ryukyu vs. Tochigi — on Saturday.

Quotable: “He’s a scorer. He’s got a scorer’s mentality. But you’ve got to make sure that he’s getting his touches. But most of them were his determination today.” — Wisman on Rossiter, speaking after the star forward’s 28-point effort. (He is averaging 20.2 per season.)

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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