What impact will Kenji Hasegawa make for the defending champion Tochigi Brex in his first season at the helm?
Will the new head coach tinker too much with the winning formula that carried the Brex to their second championship under Tom Wisman in the past decade?
Or will he find a way to replicate much of what worked for Wisman in the JBL, NBL and B. League while fine-tuning a few things here and there, such as adding a couple new wrinkles to the team’s playbook?
It’s never easy to replace an iconic leader, especially when a team is coming off a championship season. But because the Tochigi front office never offered a new contract to Wisman for 2017-18 (and beyond) and never initiated talks about the issue, captain Yuta Tabuse’s team is starting over.
The first real look at the Hasegawa era is on Friday, when the Brex play host to the SeaHorses Mikawa in the teams’ season opener in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. Tipoff is 7:05 p.m. (In their last meeting, the Brex eliminated the visiting SeaHorses in the B. League playoff semifinals in May.)
“I think that it will be a pleasant season,” Tabuse was quoted as saying by the Yomiuri Shimbun this week. Elaborating on that point, he explained that “there’s a feeling of a new challenge.”
Hasegawa summed up his main goal for the new season this way, according to the Yomiuri: “Sixty regular-season games is a long season, so I’d like to raise the level every game.”
Though he had a short stint as the Japan men’s national team boss before stepping down in 2016, Hasegawa has never coached a men’s pro team before being hired by the Brex this summer.
Really, he’s in uncharted territory.
The 57-year-old Hasegawa’s association with the Aoyama Gakuin University men’s team lasted from 1985-2013. He served stints as an assistant and head coach, with most of that time as the bench boss.
He will rely on returning assistant coach Ryuzo Anzai and new assistant Michael Katsuhisa, a former Shimane Susanoo Magic and Yokohama B-Corsairs head coach, to help lead the Brex.
Tabuse commands respect from his Brex teammates and the former Phoenix Sun is revered throughout Japan basketball. He made game-changing plays on several occasions last season — key shots, key assists, key steals to offer a few examples.
He embraced the pressure of being the face of the B. League as much as anyone in its inaugural season, and appeared to never turn down an interview or autograph request, either. He looked honored to carry the torch as the sport entered a new era here.
He also had excellent rapport with Wisman, and was No. 8 in the top flight in assists (3.4 per game) last season.
So will Hasegawa have the same success knowing how and when to rest Tabuse, who turns 37 next week, and limit his minutes to keep him rested for the most crucial moments of games?
Veteran forwards Ryan Rossiter and Jeff Gibbs are back, though Gibbs is recuperating from an Achilles injury sustained in the fourth quarter of the championship game in May at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. Expect Rossiter, the league’s top rebounder this past season (13.3 per game) to carry a bigger workload while Gibbs rehabilitates his injury and works to get back into top form.
Frontcourt stalwart Kosuke Takeuchi, guards Yusuke Endo, Yodai Maemura and Shusuke Ikuhara and forward Tomoya Ochiai are other notable returnees from the title-winning team.
Newcomer Cedric Bozeman, a small forward, is listed on the season-opening roster. He competed for the Fukushima Firebonds last season. The 198-cm UCLA alum began his pro career in the 2006-07 season, and has bounced around several overseas pro leagues since then, including in China, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The 208-cm Andrew Naymick, a Michigan State product, is another roster addition in the frontcourt. He suited up for the Alvark Tokyo and Stirling Senators of Australia’s State Basketball League last season after a brief stint with the Brex in the latter half of the 2015-16 campaign.
Shooting guard Ryo Yamazaki came on board after suiting up for the Toyama Grouses in 2016-17, while forward Shuhei Kitagawa left the Ryukyu Golden Kings.
The Nishinomiya Storks, claimed the B2 playoff title last season, conquering the Shimane Susanoo Magic in the title game. Both clubs moved up to the first division.
The Sendai 89ers and Akita Northern Happinets were demoted to the second division after going 14-46 and 18-42, respectively in the top flight last season.
The Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka, led by new coach Ryuji Kawai, and the Kanazawa Samuraiz, guided by new sideline supervisor Takeshi Hotta, were promoted to B2 after spending the previous season in B3.
The Kagoshima Rebnise and Tokyo Excellence were demoted to the nine-team B3.
Major changes in the coaching ranks took place in the offseason for the 18-team top flight.
Here’s a quick rundown of the new bench bosses:
East: Alvark Tokyo (Luka Pavicevic), Sunrockers Shibuya (Geoffrey Katsuhisa) and Hasegawa.
Central: Toyama Grouses (Miodrag Rajkovic), Nagoya Diamond Dolphins (Shingo Kagiyama) and Yokohama B-Corsairs (Satoru Furuta).
West: Ryukyu Golden Kings (Norio Sassa), Shiga Lakestars (Shawn Dennis) and Shimane (Yukinori Suzuki).
Among the positive aspects of the B. League’s establishment and unification of the old guard (NBL, NBDL) and upstart (bj-league) elements of Japan pro basketball for the 2016-17 campaign was it provided a better avenue for foreign coaches.
Coaches with passports stamped in the United States, Australia, Spain, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro are here.
Bambitious Nara head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic recognizes that the B.League has improved pro basketball’s reputation here and abroad.
“This season we have head coaches from many different countries,” Pavlicevic, who guided the Japan men’s national team at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “That’s because the new B. League has more of an impact on international levels with better imports and coaches. The level will be better.
“Except for the NBA, the rest of the world has FIBA competitions and that is one of important moments why we have head coaches from Argentina (Japan’s new men’s national team coach Julio Lamas), Australia and Europe together with Japanese and Americans. It’s good luck and welcome for better Japanese basketball.”
The Yokohama B-Corsairs on Thursday announced the signing of former NBA lottery pick Hasheem Thabeet, bringing a prominent name to the team’s frontcourt.
The 221-cm Thabeet was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, selected by the Memphis Grizzlies out of the University of Connecticut.
A dynamic shot blocker at UConn, Thabeet, who started playing basketball at age 15, according to published reports, never developed into an NBA star. The native of Tanzania appeared in 224 NBA regular-season games (20 starts) for the Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder through the 2013-14 season. His NBA career totals are 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and 10.5 minutes. He played in the NBA Development League in 2014-15 for the Grand Rapids Drive.
Opening week schedule
Four B1 series start on Friday: Tochigi vs. Mikawa, Kawasaki vs. Nagoya, Yokohama vs. Shiga and Ryukyu vs. Shibuya. Saturday’s series openers are Niigata vs. Shimane, Toyama vs. Hokkaido, Kyoto vs. San-en, Osaka vs. Tokyo and Nishinomiya vs. Chiba.
In the second division, the two-game weekend sets are Kagawa vs. Kanazawa, Aomori vs. Shinshu, Fukuoka vs. Gunma, Sendai vs. Nagoya, Akita vs. Kumamoto, Ibaraki vs. Iwate, Tokyo vs. Ehime and Nara vs. Yamagata. The Monday-Tuesday matchup features Hiroshima vs. Fukushima.
Last season’s standings
Visit the B. League home page (www.bleague.jp/standings/) and click on 2016-17 to find final records of all teams in B1 and B2 from the inaugural seasons.
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