After the exciting national spotlight of the second annual B. League All-Star Game, it’s back to business for the 36 teams that comprise the first and second divisions.
As noted in a feature story in this newspaper last week, the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka and Akita Northern Happinets are the elite teams in the second division, with both teams owning 24-4 records. At the other end of the spectrum, the Iwate Big Bulls are 2-26, with demotion to B3 the expected conclusion barring a sudden turnaround.
Twelve B2 teams have between 13 and 19 victories. Which means that a lot of movement will still occur in the standings over the next few months.
Indeed, parity is a defining trait of the second division.
Meanwhile, in the top flight, the Alvark Tokyo and SeaHorses Mikawa, guided by bench boss Luka Pavicevic, in his first season, and longtime sideline boss Kimikazu Suzuki, respectively, have the best won-loss marks at 22-6.
The Ryukyu Golden Kings, led by first-year head coach Norio Sassa, are 21-7 and sit atop the West Division standings. The Kyoto Hannaryz (16-12) are in second place.
It’s an appropriate time to note that two former Golden Kings coaches, Dai Oketani (2008-09 season) and Tsutomu Isa (2013-14), piloted the club to bj-league titles in their first seasons at the helm.
Will this season produce another storybook finish for Ryukyu?
Could the offseason overhaul of the roster deliver the only expected result that longtime team president Tatsuro Kimura has penciled in on his to-do list?
There are eight B1 teams with a victory total between 13 and 19 entering the second half of the season. The 2016-17 B2 champion Nishinomiya Storks have a 6-22 record, the worst record in the top division.
Here are several key storylines for the second half of the season:
■The Niigata Albirex BB feature the electrifying talents of league scoring leader Davante Gardner (29.1 points per game). The Marquette University product is No. 4 in rebounding (10.3).
Gardner has carried the scoring load for large stretches of many games, with teams not consistently slowing him down.
The Albirex, however, have stumbled. They have a 10-18 record and sit in fifth place in the six-club Central Division, with only the Yokohama B-Corsairs (8-20) behind them. They have dropped four straight games, the longest current losing streak in B1, and eight of their last 10.
For a big man, Gardner’s impressive passing skills and court vision are vital skills on offense. His team, however, needs balanced scoring on a more consistent basis. If that happens, Niigata becomes a more potent offensive team.
Gardner’s overall performance will factor greatly into what the Albirex accomplish during the rest of the season.
■Will the infusion of journeyman NBA forward Lou Amundson into the rotation give the Kawasaki Brave Thunders a big boost?
Amundson brings a wealth of experience from playing in the world’s top league. He made his B. League debut on Dec. 30. His defensive energy and all-around scrappy style of play could help elevate Kawasaki (18-10), the title runner-up squad last spring.
The Brave Thunders completed a two-game sweep of the Sunrockers Shibuya on New Year’s Eve, with Amundson making contributions in both wins. They are riding a six-game win streak, making them the hottest team in the top flight.
■The SeaHorses had the joint second-best record in B1 last season, winning 46 of 60 games, then saw their season end in disappointing fashion in the mini-game playoff semifinal tiebreaker against the host and eventual champion Tochigi Brex.
Mikawa, playing with a chip on its shoulder, is back in the hunt for a title once again. Will the disappointment of last spring produce a happy conclusion this year?
■Will Shiga Lakestars guard Narito Namizato maintain his pace as B1’s top assist man (7.3 per game), or will Toyama Grouses playmaker Naoki Uto (7.0) rise to the top?
■Who will emerge as the shot-block king at the end of the grueling 60-game campaign?
It’s currently a two-man battle between Shiga’s D’or Fischer (2.7 rejections a game) and Yokohama’s Hasheem Thabeet (2.5).
All-Star Game highlights
Looking back at Sunday’s midseason showcase at Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium, here are a few bright moments that particularly resonated with this reporter, who has covered Japan pro basketball since 2006:
Ryukyu star and game MVP finalist Ira Brown embracing Kumamoto Volters shooting guard Shintaro Koboyashi after the fans’ votes on social media were announced. Kobayashi was chosen as the MVP.
It was a true display of sportsmanship and helped further enrich Kobayashi’s memorable moment in the spotlight as the MVP in front of his hometown fans.
In its Monday paper, a Kumamoto Nichinichi Shimbun photo captured the moment.
Brown and Shimane’s Tyler Stone delivered an entertaining final round in the Slam Dunk Contest, with Brown winning the fans’ vote via social media to defend his title.
Seeing the happiness on Hannaryz star Yusuke Okada’s face after he won the 3-Point Contest before the game.
Okada spoke humbly about the work that he and his teammates do each day to hone their skills as 3-point shooters. It was an honest reminder about the value of hard work.
Observing how the players on B. Black and B. White stayed focused on the No. 1 object of the game: entertaining the fans. From the opening basket of the game (a baseline jumper by Brown) to the final bucket (a Gardner 3-pointer) there was no shortage of offense in B. White’s 123-111 triumph.
The Tochigi-Shiga series was scheduled to begin on Thursday night in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. Other B1 series for this weekend: Osaka vs. Ryukyu (starting Friday) and Mikawa vs. Nishinomiya, Nagoya vs. Niigata, Chiba vs. Yokohama, San-en vs. Shibuya, Hokkaido vs. Kawasaki, Toyama vs. Shimane and Kyoto vs. Tokyo on Saturday.