The Kumamoto Volters are a team on a mission.
Sure, winning games is a top priority. But it’s an objective trumped by their ongoing quest to play in the first division next season.
So far, so good. The Kyushu-based club is first overall in the 18-team second division with a 21-3 record, and the Volters are vying for promotion next season to the top flight.
They have won five straight games after dropping a 78-57 decision to the Hiroshima Dragonflies on Dec. 3. Before that? They rattled off 13 consecutive wins.
Despite lofty goals, the Volters have exceeded their own expectations.
“I definitely think the team didn’t think we would have the best record in the league at this point,” Kumamoto veteran power forward Reggie Warren, a longtime elite player in the bj-league, told The Japan Times. “But I know they have high expectations to take this team to B1, and that’s my mission.”
On paper, the Volters may not appear to have the ideal leadership structure, with a 27-year-old head coach (Takayuki Yasuda), a 31-year-old assistant coach (Shohei Kizu) and a 36-year-old general manager (Tatsuro Nishii). But the three men have silenced the critics so far, working together to create a successful team.
Warren believes the team has plenty of room for improvement.
“As far as the games we have won, only a few we have played really well,” said Warren, a University of West Florida alum who was an original star of the Takamatsu Five Arrows’ expansion squad in 2006-07. “I think we have just found ways to win in the end. I think we can be so much better, but one thing I really like about our team at the moment, even when we have been down big in games we have showed a lot of heart and were able to come back from large deficits.”
He cited Sunday’s comeback victory over the visiting Earthfriends Tokyo Z as an example of the team’s resilience. The Volters trailed 48-25 during the second quarter and faced a 51-34 deficit entering the third quarter. They were behind 60-47 after three quarters, then stormed past the visitors, outscoring Earthfriends 21-7 in the final quarter to secure a 68-67 win and keep their win streak alive.
Warren paced Kumamoto with 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in its latest victory, and 208-cm rookie post player Joel James, a University of North Carolina product, contributed 16 points and nine boards.
The Volters face a formidable foe, the Gunma Crane Thunders (18-6), on Christmas weekend at home, and Warren plans to remain a constant voice of reason to his teammates.
“Getting too cocky is the one thing I have been afraid of,” he stated. “But I make it my duty to make sure everyone remains humble and doesn’t take any team for granted. We are confident. You need that to be a successful ballclub, but you also have to respect your opponents.”
The Volters have secured a spot as one of the B2’s elite teams with top-notch rebounding (No. 1, 43.5 a game) and assists (No. 1, 15.2). They are second in points allowed (67.3), third in blocks (4.1), fourth in steals (7.2) and sixth in scoring (75.8).
In individual statistics, 23-year-old Volters point guard Takumi Furuno is the league leader in assists (4.6) and steals (2.0), with teammate Yuji Kanbara sixth in takeaways (1.6).
Four Kumamoto players are averaging double figures in scoring: Furuno (12.7 points per game), Warren (12.0), forward/center Ryota Nakanishi (10.5) and James (10.2). Warren is the top rebounder (8.2 a game), followed by James (7.8).
“I think our size and ability to defend and rebound are our biggest strengths,” Warren said. “And when we are sharing the ball we are a pretty good ballclub.”
Though victory after victory has been a defining trait of the Volters’ season, it’s been an adjustment period for them, too, in the new league in its inaugural season.
“I still think adjusting to these different rules to how many imports can be on the court each quarter is still a big adjustment,” Warren said. “I hope they get rid of that rule and just allow for two imports to be able to play all four quarters.”
After being a go-to standout for the Five Arrows, Saitama Broncos, Kyoto Hannaryz, Rizing Fukuoka and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix during eight combined past seasons (he also played a year in South Korea and one in Venezuela since ’06), Warren has not let the lesser profile of the Volters’ B2 status be a negative. He’s turned it into a positive.
“To be honest I really didn’t see myself playing in the B2 this first season of the B. League. I thought for sure for all I have done in Japan basketball I would be on a B1 club,” he said candidly. “But hey, I am here in B2 and I am definitely motivated to take this club up to B1.
“But what really fuels me each and every day is thinking about the teams in B1 that didn’t make me an offer. I heard a lot of different things this summer from me being an older guy, they wanted to offer (deals to) younger and more athletic players. But I know I got what a lot of players lack and that’s a whole lot of heart and determination to win, and you can’t teach that and I know it.”
Jets talk: Chiba’s 13-game win streak — with the latest victory a 90-65 shellacking of the Toyama Grouses on Sunday — has caught the attention of hoop fans and media from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
On Sunday, Chiba players spoke with joy about the transformation of the team that has accompanied the streak.
We feel like a completely different team since early October,” center Hilton Armstrong said. “We got a couple wins going and after we got about four in a row, five in a row, we started feeling a little bit more confident for the games and even going into practice you could tell the vibe of the team is different when we step onto the floor.
“We’re having a lot more fun. When you win, everything is a lot more fun. So we’re just going out there and giving it our all and just smiling and having a lot of fun out there.”
Sharpshooter Kosuke Ishii, Sunday’s top offensive performer with an electrifying 26-point effort including seven 3-pointers, clearly enjoyed the spotlight during his post-game interview session with reporters who peppered him with questions about his shooting mechanics and outside shooting ability.
Ishii, a rising star, described the team’s current run as a “happy, good feeling.”
He was equally positive in expressing his view about the lively, sold-out crowd of 5,217 spectators on Sunday at Funabashi Arena, calling it a “good atmosphere.”
What’s been the key to the Jets’ success?
Ishii said the key is to “keep positive” and focus on “one game at a time.”
On Monday, Michael Parker, a do-it-all veteran forward, summed up Jets coach Atsushi Ono’s impact in an interview with The Japan Times.
“I think that he is a player’s coach,” Parker said. “He was a player only a short time ago and brings that to his coaching style. He has a laid-back leadership style which has allowed our Japanese players to thrive. He is always open to listen to opinions of the players.”
Ono, 39, wrapped up his playing career in 2010 with the now-defunct Panasonic Trians. He worked as a Panasonic assistant for two seasons, and spent 2014-16 with the Hiroshima Dragonflies in the same capacity.
“I also think that his coaching staff (including American Calvin Oldham and Yoshinori Kaneta) is strong and the fact that he listens so well makes him a better head coach,” Parker said.
“All three of our coaches have different experiences and outlooks on situations and he does a great job putting it all together.”
With Ono, in his first season at the helm, quickly putting his stamp on the team, the Jets (18-7) have established an identity as a high-scoring squad on offense and a tenacious defensive club .
“We have a little bit of everything and everyone does their job very well,” said Armstrong, a UConn alum and former NBA player, analyzing the team’s roster makeup. “If we can keep this going and play with the right intensity and play with the right focus, I think that we can make some serious noise in this league this year.”
Quotable: “He’s an amazing shooter. He’s one of the best shooters in this league . . . and I’m very grateful that he’s on our team.” — Armstrong on Ishii.
Upcoming games: The first-division schedule for the weekend tips off on Friday with four series openers: Sendai vs. Nagoya, Shibuya vs. Shiga, Niigata vs. Chiba and Kawasaki vs. Tokyo. On Saturday, the openers are Kyoto vs. Hokkaido, Tochigi vs. Yokohama, Toyama vs. Mikawa, San-en vs. Osaka and Ryukyu vs. Akita.