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Tough defense makes difference for Tochigi

by Ed Odeven

All teams were in action on Wednesday, providing Golden Week entertainment for fans across the nation. A one-day spectacle that deviates from the back-to-back days of regular-season action, the tactical adjustments that take place between games and the physical and mental exhaustion that teams cope with.

Be that as it may, the Tochigi Brex don’t need to look at Wednesday’s result to underscore the significance of the team’s not-so-subtle transformation in recent weeks.

The Brex, a dynamic all-around squad under former coach Tom Wisman during their 2016-17 title-winning season, are a pesky, in-sync collection of players who’ve embraced new bench boss Ryuzo Anzai’s brand of demonic defense.

“Defense is my focus,” guard Yudai Maemura told reporters on Sunday at Brex Arena Utsunomiya after Tochigi had dismantled the Sunrockers Shibuya game plan in a 74-61 verdict a day after holding the visitors to 55 points en route to a 16-point margin of victory.

He’s not the only Tochigi player to declare that that’s his mission.

In fact, entering the final three-game stretch of the regular season, the playoff-bound Brex had held foes to less than 80 points in each of their last 15 victories, improving to 33-24 in the process.

“Coach preaches defense and really emphasizes it in film and practice,” said forward Ryan Rossiter, the league’s No. 2 rebounder (10.4 per game), “but we haven’t specifically talked about that number.”

It is, Rossiter said, “a very good and telling stat though.”

To make this happen, the Brex attack passing lanes, deploy in-your-face defense wherever the ball goes and quickly recover when a shooter is left open.

Here’s what the Brex have accomplished while overcoming a slow start this season, with franchise cornerstone Jeff Gibbs recovering from a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered in the title game last May:

■ Beating the Osaka Evessa 81-48 and 91-79 on Feb. 10 and 11, followed by 79-61 and 78-45 wins over the Shimane Susanoo Magic on Feb. 17 and 18.

■ Topping the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins 84-72 and 75-66 on March 10 and 11, beating the Chiba Jets 73-71 on March 17, edging the Kawasaki Brave Thunders 82-77 on the 24th and then prevailing over the Sunrockers 87-64 and 76-64 on March 30 and 31. (They went 6-5 in March.)

■ Last month’s ledger shows a 73-69 win over the Levanga Hokkaido on April 7, 76-67 and 69-65 wins over the Toyama Grouses on the 14th and 15th, a 75-64 decision over Kawasaki on the 21st and two more Ws against the Sunrockers, 71-55 last Saturday and the aforementioned rout in the series finale.

It all adds up to a team with rising confidence in individual roles and team strategy.

Just ask iconic captain Yuta Tabuse.

“Everything starts with defense,” Tabuse said.

Veteran small forward Cedric Bozeman, who had a brief stint with the Atlanta Hawks early in his pro career, said Anzai has put his stamp on the team by sticking to fundamentals. He signaled the return of Gibbs, who’s appeared in 33 games (27 starts) and made his season debut on Dec. 20 as a key for the team to make a run for the playoffs after a slow start.

“It’s very tough, but Coach Anzai has done a great job implementing toughness and making us play very hard, especially on the defensive end to compete because that’s always going to give us a chance to win,” said Bozeman, a UCLA alum. “Getting Jeff back, too, that was a big plus. We needed his physicality, and from there we got better as a team and we are continuing to get better.”

Gibbs, who played college ball at NCAA Division III Otterbein (Ohio) University. is averaging 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.5 blocks. An undersized frontcourt leader at 188 cm with great jumping ability, Gibbs battles players several centimeters taller in the paint and routinely comes up with rebounds that, according to logic, would be unfathomable.

Indeed, Gibbs is an irreplaceable part of a team aiming to defend its title later this month.

Toughness is another element, one imposed by Anzai after he stepped into the hot seat following Wisman successor Kenji Hasegawa’s abrupt departure in November. Anzai, previously a Wisman assistant, inherited a 4-9 team, one that won its first game under his watch on a buzzer-beating 3 by Rossiter against host Kawasaki.

“You’re not going to win games unless you stop the other team from scoring baskets,” Bozeman acknowledged. “That’s the core of our team: play tough defense and the offense will find itself. But defensively, hold teams under certain percentages and keep them limited points, we are going to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Who’s hot?

Through Sunday, the second-division Ibaraki Robots had rattled off 15 straight wins.

Over a 10-game span entering Wednesday’s midweek slate of action, the Osaka Evessa were 8-2, as were the Chiba Jets, who took a six-game winning streak into the day.

The Nagoya Diamond Dolphins and Niigata Albirex BB completed back-to-back sweeps to run their win streaks to four apiece.

Who’s not?

The San-en NeoPhoenix rode a seven-game slide into Wednesday, with the Levanga Hokkaido and Sunrockers looking to halt six- and five-game losing runs, respectively.

A look ahead

Here’s the B1 schedule for two-game matchups Friday through Monday: Nagoya vs. Tochigi (a Friday-Saturday series), with Shiga vs. Toyama, Chiba vs. Ryukyu, Mikawa vs. Kawasaki, Tokyo vs. Kyoto, San-en vs. Nishinomiya, Shibuya vs. Osaka and Shimane vs. Yokahama all starting on Saturday. The Hokkaido-Niigata series tips off on Sunday.