Finally, after a regular season that occupied parts of nine months — starting in the final week of September — the focus now shifts to the B. League Championship.
Which leaves us with eight teams in the hunt for the title, and another 10 left behind. But the Yokohama B-Corsairs, Toyama Grouses, Nishinomiya Storks and Shimane Susanoo Magic must vie to remain in the top flight by participating in the upcoming relegation-promotion playoffs. Their status for next season will depend on it.
The playoffs appear to be a wide-open competition. The final is set for May 26 at Yokohama Arena.
The defending champion Tochigi Brex are one of four squads out of the ultra-tough East Division, which a few weeks ago had all six teams sitting above .500. The Brex, joined by the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, Alvark Tokyo and Chiba Jets Funabashi, aim to take home a second crown, while other teams look to put their own stamp on the postseason, adding a glorious finish to it.
From the Central Division, the mighty SeaHorses Mikawa, who rattled off 16- and 17-game winning streaks this season and finished with the top overall record (48-12) are many league observers’ favorite to claim the title. The Nagoya Diamond Dolphins are also in the mix.
From the West Division, the retooled Ryukyu Golden Kings, experienced a 13-win improvement from the 2016-17 season. As a result, give a nod to first-year bench boss Norio Sassa as a strong candidate for Coach of the Year honors. The Kings possess a squadron of 3-point shooters and good size and overall speed, while the Kyoto Hannaryz have coped with injuries in recent weeks, as well as the loss of frontcourt star Joshua Smith to a suspension after a ball he slapped hit a fan in the stands during Golden Week. And the Diamond Dolphins enter the playoffs as a scrappy team eyeing an upset.
Quarterfinal-round matchups: Ryukyu (42-18) vs. Nagoya (31-29), Mikawa vs. Tochigi (34-26), Chiba (46-14) vs. Kawasaki (41-19) and Tokyo (44-16) vs. Kyoto (34-26) in two-game sets on Saturday and Sunday. If both teams achieve victories in any of the series, a mini-game tiebreaker would be played after the second game to determine the series winner.
Elsewhere, in the second-division, the Akita Northern Happinets (54-6) are the top seed and face the Kumamoto Volters (41-19) this weekend, while the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka (47-13) meet the Fighting Eagles Nagoya (39-21), who edged out the Ibaraki Robots by one game for the Central Division crown and the fourth and final playoff spot. The B2 final is set for May 27 at Yokohama Arena.
With a new coaching staff running the show this season, Tokyo produced an identical won-loss record as last year’s team, which was led by then-coach Takuma Ito.
First-year sideline supervisor Luka Pavicevic took stock of his team after Sunday’s rout of Kyoto, which gave the Alvark their fourth straight victory entering the postseason. No other B1 team has a longer current winning streak.
Asked what he considers the team’s most revealing aspect of its character and performance this season, Pavicevic provided this response: “This is the situation: The most revealing thing is, to me, this group is so motivated and is inspired to play, and they worked in a different system (before), so I’m sure there were a lot of difficult things for my players. But this team came every week with a smile on their face and worked really hard to be on the top of the league.
“Now at some points, there were four people missing to the national team, two people would be out for an injury, and we would have six players for like four or five or six or eight days, and these six players we would practice one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, low post, everything, many weeks. No excuse. On this team, the six players were keeping the fire going . . . (until) these four players would come back in, and sometimes only for the game and play a game.”
He continued: “A tough moment was losing to Kyoto in the Emperor’s Cup (in January) without four players, but this team would always continue regardless of the difficulties they face.”
Did you know?
Mikawa has the highest scoring average (84.6, No. 1 in league) among the eight first-division postseason participants.
Ryukyu has the stingiest defense, giving up a league-low 67.7 points. No other team yielded a below-70 average over the course of the long season.
Both Nagoya and Ryukyu knocked down 8.8 3-pointers a game, topping the B1 chart in that category.
The SeaHorses claim the label of best rebounding team in the circuit, collecting 39.5 per match.
Chiba and Kawasaki have a penchant for passing that puts them atop the chart for playoff teams, each dishing out 21.1 assist a game.
The Jets are No. 1 in both steals and blocks, 8.5 and 3.7, respectively.
Who finished with top-five averages in the key statistical categories this season?
Points: Niigata’s Davante Gardner (28.7), Kawasaki’s Nick Fazekas (25.2), Hokkaido’s Marc Trasolini (19.0), Chiba’s Gavin Edwards (18.1) and Toyama’s Naoki Uto (17.0).
Assists: Uto (7.6), Shiga’s Narito Namizato (7.4), Niigata’s Kei Igarashi (5.6), Mikawa’s J.R. Sakuragi (5.3) and Tokyo’s Daiki Tanaka (5.0).
Rebounds: Fazekas (10.9), Mikawa’s Isaac Butts (10.27), Tochigi’s Ryan Rossiter (10.23), Gardner (9.97) and Shiga’s D’or Fischer (9.90).
Steals: Chiba’s Michael Parker (1.9), Trasolini (1.52), Nishinomiya’s Draelon Burns (1.51), Namizato (1.46) and Shibuya’s Leo Vendrame (1.42).
Blocks: Yokohama’s Hasheem Thabeet (2.29), Fischer (2.15), Ryukyu’s Hassan Martin (1.36), Trasolini (1.3) and Tokyo’s Alex Kirk (1.23).
Free-throw percentage: Mikawa’s Kosuke Kanamaru (93.1), Nishinomiya’s Noriaki Dohara (90.4), Tochigi’s Shuhei Kitagawa (89.5), Hokkaido’s Asahi Tajima (89.2) and Nishinomiya’s Naoki Tani (87.9).
3-point percentage: Kitagawa (41.6), Toyama’s Yuto Otsuka (39.7), Kanamaru (39.4), Shimane’s Kimitake Sato (39.3) and Kawasaki’s Naoto Tsuji (38.8).
Chiba finished first among all teams in attendance for the second straight season, averaging 5,196 spectators per game, according to figures released in Tuesday’s league marketing report. For the Jets, it’s an increase of 15.4 percent from last season.
The runner-up? Hokkaido, which averaged 3,743, a rise of 33.9 percent.
Nos. 3-5: Tochigi (3,653), Ryukyu (3,344) and Yokohama (3,102).
A season ago, six B1 clubs averaged more than 3,000 per game, a league target. It increased to eight this season.
The Gifu Swoops this spring were approved to become the 10th team in the third division. The new franchise is set to begin play in B3 next season. . . . B2’s final individual stat leaders: Scoring: Ehime’s Chehales Tapscott (22.0), Kagawa’s Reggie Warren (20.9) and Kanazawa’s Andrew Fitzgerald (20.4); assists: Kumamoto’s Takumi Furuno (7.1), Akita’s Kaito Ishikawa (5.38) and Fukuoka’s Yasuhiro Yamashita (5.3); rebounds: Warren (12.6), Kumamto’s Josh Duinker (10.0) and Ibaraki’s Rick Rickert (9.6); steals: Takuya Nakayama (2.0), Yamashita (1.5) and Shinshu’s Anthony McHenry (1.5); blocks: Akita’s Kadeem Coleby (1.69), Ibaraki’s Chuwudiebere Maduabum (1.6) and Kanazawa’s Wayne Marshall (1.57).
The Best of Tough Shot Weekly Top 5, a regular staple of league highlights promoted on social media and posted on YouTube, closed with a No. 1 play that put Shiga ahead 76-76 in the final minute against visiting Toyama on Sunday, with Namizato driving toward the hoop, dishing a bounce pass from a diagonal angle in the paint to Venky Jois, who then zipped the ball with a chest pass to Fischer, who drove baseline for a layup.
The well-orchestrated play showcased good spacing, ball movement and strong fundamentals by the Lakestars, who went on to win 78-74 and ended their season with a two-game sweep of the Grouses.
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