The determined, cohesive Ibaraki Robots have entered the second-division playoff picture with a spectacular run in recent weeks.
The Robots are riding a 13-game winning streak, a brilliant stretch that began on March 17 against the Aomori Wat’s (two victories) and continued in succession with wins over the Earthfriends Tokyo Z, Kanazawa Samuraiz, Sendai 89ers, Shinshu Brave Warriors, Fighting Eagles Nagoya and Iwate Big Bulls. Twelve of those wins were a part of two-game series sweeps. The lone exception: A 74-68 decision over the Samuraiz on March 28, when the league schedule had a midweek break from the normal routine and teams faced one foe before returning to the standard two-game set that weekend.
For Ibaraki, the current run includes eight victories decided by 10 or fewer points, including a 65-62 home triumph over the Brave Warriors on April 7 and a 56-53 nailbiter against the visiting Fighting Eagles on April 14. A day later, coach Keita Iwashita’s team demonstrated it can put points on the board in a hurry in a 106-86 win.
“I think everything kind of is falling into place right now and everybody is learning their plays and learning their role within the team,” Robots center Rick Rickert said.
Entering this weekend’s home series against the Crane Thunders, the Robots (34-21) sit atop B2’s Central Division standings, sharing the top record with the Fighting Eagles, though Ibaraki holds the tiebreaker with a 5-1 record in their head-to-head games.
Teams have five more games to wrap up the regular season. (Leading the B2 are the Akita Northern Happinets (49-6) and Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka (46-9), two teams expected to earn promotion to B1 for the 2018-19 season.)
Last season, Ibaraki fell short of its goal of reaching the playoffs, finishing 32-28 as an East Division team before being switched to its current division before the current campaign.
There were expectations, however, for the Robots to continue building on what they accomplished last year, according to Rickert.
“We went on a pretty good run at the end of last season as well,” recalled Rickert during a phone interview with The Japan Times on Wednesday. “We started to flow. We just came up short with the playoffs. So that has kind of repeated a little bit in terms of we’re peaking at the end of the season.
“That peak, however, started a little bit earlier this year, so that’s giving us an opportunity to make the postseason this year.”
Rickert, who has 28 double-doubles this season, including a 32-point, 23-rebound effort against the Samuraiz on Feb. 2 and a 35-point outing versus the Rizing Zephyr on Feb. 17, cited a big change in the team’s roster as a factor in the team’s slow start this season (3-5 at the get-go).
“It takes a while to really learn how to play together,” he said, “but I feel like we are hitting that stride right now, and we are feeling pretty good. We are in a good space right now.”
Well-traveled veteran Rickert, one of the premier big men in the second division, leads the Robots in scoring (16.5 points per game) and rebounding (9.8). Captain Josei “Mani” Maniwa is averaging 13.2 ppg, is No. 2 on the club in assists (3.3) and first in 3-point shooting percentage (38.8, also No. 4 in B2).
Post player Chukwudiebere “Chu” Maduabum, a native of Nigeria, is the team’s top shot blocker (1.7 per contest, also No. 1 in B2) while averaging 8.0 ppg. Also competing up front, is newcomer Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who attended the University of South Florida, and is No. 2 in rebounds (7.0) and also second in both blocks (0.5) and steals (1.0).
Point guard Yuji Takahashi leads the team in steals (1.3) and fellow playmaker Atsunobu Hirao tops the chart in assists (3.6).
One sign of the Robots’ disciplined offense is their turnovers per game (12.1), second-lowest average in the second flight and trailing Kanazawa (11.5).
Last season, Rickert was second in B2 in both scoring (18.6 ppg) and rebounding (13.0), making 38 starts in 58 games.
Rickert has appeared in all 55 games, making 36 starts. Iwashita has penciled his name in the starting lineup in 16 straight games.
Clearly, the Robots have become more in sync with their player rotations and on-court chemistry as the season marches on.
“When you have more stability with your starting lineup as opposed to one guy starting here, one guy starting there, it was kind of flip-flopping early in the season,” said Rickert, a former University of Minnesota standout who was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves (55th overall pick in 2003) but didn’t make the roster. Since then, he has carved a niche as a dependable big man in overseas hoop leagues.
“Now our chemistry is good because we have this stable group of guys that come out and we know what we are going to get and the rotations are more stable. That’s definitely connected to that. I feel I’m able to anchor that with scoring and rebounding and the leadership on the floor.”
Chemistry isn’t the only key factor in Ibaraki’s big win streak. For the players, earnest effort and commitment to their craft have paid off.
“We are a real hard-working team,” said Rickert, who joined the club prior to last season after stints with Kyoto, now-defunct Wakayama, Osaka and Chiba in the bj-league and NBL era. He cited individual shooting and the team’s defensive drills as key examples.
Defensively, the Robots have made life difficult for the opposition, holding teams to 41.3 percent shooting from the floor. Only Shinshu (40.7 percent) has held teams to a lower percentage through Sunday.
Iwashita and his coaching staff have made solid preparations along the way. Rickert described him as “a very thorough coach.”
“He does a lot of film work with us,” Rickert said of the 29-year-old Iwashita. “He points out the positives and negatives of the other team, the opponent. . . . He (also) points out what we really need to improve on as well as the on-court stuff. He works with a lot of the guys trying to get them better. . . . Even though he’s a young coach, he’s a hard-working coach.”
Maniwa, meanwhile, has thrived in his new role as captain this season, commanding respect from his peers and leading by example.
“He will get vocal when he feels it’s necessary . . . but he’s more of a subtle guy in that regard,” Rickert noted. “He goes out there and plays hard and he wants what’s best for the team, so that’s kind of the bottom line with him.”
Maduabum’s primary impact is on defense for the Robots, with Rickert calling the 206-cm, 122-kg player “a big presence down there, a shot blocker and take up space and he does a really good job of that.”
Fitzpatrick joined the Robots after 24 games in an Akita uniform earlier this season. He fits in well.
On Fitzpatrick, Rickert had this to say: “He’s an all-around team guy. He’s going to do whatever it takes give the team its best chance of winning, and if that means him scoring zero points just to dish out five assists, he’s gonna do that versus gunning to get his own points. He’s very much a team guy, and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been successful is because we have a whole bunch of team players that are trying to buy into what we are trying to do here.”
Which leads to the team’s big aspirations as the season gets closer to the finish line.
“Obviously our ultimate goal was to win this championship and move up to the first division, but we focus on what we can control at the time,” Rickert said. “And right now, our fate is in our own hands. We have five games left, and if we win these five games, we are in the playoffs no question.”
A look ahead
Here’s a quick rundown of this weekend’s first-division matchups: Kawasaki vs. Kyoto and Yokohama vs. Nagoya (both starting on Friday), while the rest of the two-game series — Tochigi vs. Shibuya, Chiba vs. Hokkaido, Osaka vs. Shiga, Niigata vs. San-en, Toyama vs. Mikawa, Ryukyu vs. Tokyo and Shimane vs. Nishinomiya — tip off the next day.