Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Quality coaches competing for top accolade

by Ed Odeven

Who’s the leading candidate to be named the B. League’s coach of the year for the first time in the 18-team top division?

It’s a real roll of the dice entering the final weekend of April.

In other words, it still appears to be a wide-open race.

But here are some of the top contenders for the prestigious honor:

  • Kawasaki Brave Thunders head coach Takuya Kita, who has guided his club to a league-best 45-10 record through Sunday. They have also clinched the Central Division title.
  • Tochigi Brex bench boss Tom Wisman, whose squad is 44-11 and sits in first place in the top-heavy East Divison.
  • SeaHorses Mikawa sideline supervisor Kimikazu Suzuki, who has led his team to a 44-11 mark. Under the longtime mentor, the SeaHorses have already captured the West Division crown, surprising no one in the process.

With some of the final playoff positions still to be determined before all clubs play 60 regular-season games, the potential final push made by the Alvark Tokyo (39-16), piloted by Takuma Ito, and their East rival Chiba Jets (39-16), steered by Atsushi Ono, could factor into the coaching award debate.

Other pundits will toss out other names, and rightfully so. Guiding a team in the first year of a new league is never an easy task.

Some teams started out really slow, others have faded after quick starts. But the final five games on the schedule could determine who seals the popularity contest to nab the coaching honor.

If the award was being issued this week, though, the position here is that Kita, Wisman, Suzuki, Ito and Ono are the five choices.

It’ll be interesting to see if another name or two emerges as a real possibility to be in the mix for the award.

A coach’s strength

A player may like a coach’s offensive system, defensive tactics or substitution patterns.

But sometimes what a player appreciates the most is a mentor’s communication skills.

Such is the case with Sunrockers Shibuya center Robert Sacre, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2012-16.

Sacre cited Shibuya bench boss BT Toews’ willingness to listen and speak with players instead of just barking out orders like a drill sergeant. Other coaches are rarely approachable.

“He’ll listen to what you have to say,” Sacre told reporters on Sunday, “and you can go up and talk to him about whatever you like, and he’ll come up to you and talk.

“I’ve had coaches in the past and it’s been communication problems and you don’t know what you’re doing wrong when you’re not playing or what’s happening. But in my point of view it’s been easy to communicate with him.”

Asked what stands out about Toews’ coaching tactics, Sacre continued his main point.

“Again,” he said, “going back, it’s all about communication, and he’ll listen to what your suggestions are.

“Sometimes he’s probably pulling his hair out on what I’m thinking or what we (the players) are thinking and vice versa on that,” the Gonzaga University product added. “But because we can communicate, we can work on whatever we need to fix.”

Impressive numbers

Brave Thunders big man Nick Fazekas’ league-high 27.5 points per game represents a player at the height of his powers.

Indeed, the former NBA player takes a lot of shots (1,048 attempts from the field and 375 free throws), but he makes them with a high rate of success (54.7 percent from everywhere but the foul line, where he’s converted 81.1 percent).

What’s more, he’s a model of consistency.

Exhibit A: In 55 games since late September, Fazekas has reached double digits in points every time.

When you consider that this is the B. League’s first season and 10 of Kawasaki’s 17 foes played in the bj-league last year, Fazekas’ domination of his former NBL opponents and the other ex-league’s teams hammers home the point that no matter who the Brave Thunders face the big fellow is poised to score a lot of points.

Fazekas speaks out

Despite their remarkable overall record, Fazekas insisted his club needs to refocus itself for the final stretch of the regular season.

Sunday’s road defeat to the Sunrockers put Kawasaki at 2-2 over its last four games. That’s not good enough, according to Fazekas.

“We’re 2-2 in our last four games,” he told The Japan Times. “We’ve lost 10 games the whole season, so I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball right now. . . . We’ve got to find a way to change that.”

Fazekas said he expected a players meeting to be held during the week to “try to get things figured out.”

With five games remaining, Fazekas issued this analysis: “It’s not important to be playing your best basketball right now, but you’d like to be getting close to peaking right now.”

Positive growth

In the social media age, Twitter represents an important conduit of news and information for people of all ages.

Japan’s big three professional sports leagues rely on Twitter accounts and other social media outlets to distribute info and help promote their teams.

In its first season, the B. League has taken a big step in gaining a wide following via social media.

For instance, there are currently 135,000 followers of the official B. League Twitter account. NPB’s Twitter account has 136,000 followers, with the J. League account now at 286,000 followers.

Second-division spotlight on . . . Gunma Crane Thunders

As the regular season winds down, Gunma has put itself in position to be a key player in the battle to earn promotion to the first division for the 2017-18 campaign.

Coach Fujitaka Hiraoka’s team sits atop the East Division standings with a 36-20 record.

Veteran center Abdullahi Kuso said the team expected to be competitive, but there was a certain level of uncertainty that also hung in the air before the season tipped off.

“Before the season started, we knew we had a good team but because we hadn’t seen the teams around the league, I didn’t know what to expect,” Kuso, a Gonzaga University alum, told The Japan Times. “As the season went on, however, our expectations started to grow partly because we bought into what our coach was teaching and had good team chemistry.

“We wouldn’t be satisfied till we reach our goal, which is to win the championship but we’re definitely happy to have clinched the Eastern Conference.”

A team that includes scoring maestro Thomas Kennedy, seasoned guards in Hirotaka Kondo, captain Masashi Obuchi and Takamichi Fujiwara, among others, began the season with a solid nucleus.

Kennedy, the team’s leading scorer (14.0 ppg) is No. 7 in that category in B2. Obuchi is seventh in the second flight in steals (1.5) and Kondo is 10th (1.3). Obuchi is contributing a solid 10.7 ppg.

“Our experience has helped us pull together when we need to,” said Kuso, a native of Nigeria, “but it’s been a long season with a few ups and downs.”

He added: “We have quite a few veterans on our team, so it was easy building chemistry with each other. Our coaching staff also does an excellent job of scouting other teams.”

The biggest challenge?

“The toughest adjustment was learning to play with four domestic players in one quarter and three in the next,” Kuso stated. “Also being able to contribute after sitting on the bench for an entire quarter sometimes.”

Looking at the season as a whole, Kuso expressed satisfaction in the production and leadership he’s provided for his team.

“Yes I’m happy with my performance so far,” he admitted. “We’ve qualified for the playoffs and we have a chance to make it to B1 and ultimately win the championship.”

By the numbers, it’s been a rock-solid season for Kuso, who ranks third in blocked shots (1.8), while also averaging 13.2 points and 8.3 rebounds in 56 games.

A look ahead

This weekend’s B1 action tips off on Friday with the Kawasaki-Yokohama series opener. A day later, the following series begin: Tochigi vs. Chiba, Shibuya vs. Toyama, Mikawa vs. Osaka, Sendai vs. Tokyo, Akita vs. Hokkaido, Niigata vs. San-en, Shiga vs. Nagoya and Ryukyu vs. Kyoto.

Ed Odeven can be reached via email at: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp