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Final four set to clash

by Ed Odeven

And now it’s down to four teams still chasing after the B. League Championship crown.

This weekend, the East Division champion Chiba Jets Funabashi play host to the West champ Ryukyu Golden Kings and the Central champ SeaHorses Mikawa face the visiting Alvark Tokyo. Games are set for Saturday and Sunday. If necessary, a 10-minute mini-game tiebreaker will be played following Game 2 to determine which team will move on to the final on May 26 at Yokohama Arena.

Up first: The Akita Northern Happinets (56-6 including the playoffs) and Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka (49-13) are set to square off in the second-division final on Saturday and Sunday in Akita. Both games are set to tip off at 2 p.m. at CNA Arena Akita.

Bragging rights are on the line with the B2 winner’s trophy at stake. The teams have already secured promotion to the top flight.

The Jets (46-14 in the regular season) and Golden Kings (42-18) both trace their roots to the bj-league, joining the now-disbanded circuit in 2011 and 2007, respectively. Both clubs eked out tiebreaker wins at home in the quarterfinals to reach the semifinals. Chiba held off the Kawasaki Brave Thunders 22-15, while Ryukyu eliminated the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins 17-12. Mikawa went a league-best 48-12 before the postseason began before eliminating the reigning champion Tochigi Brex last weekend, and Tokyo had a 44-16 record for the second consecutive season, then dispatched the Kyoto Hannaryz.

Among playoff teams, the Jets are No. 2 in scoring (84.5 points per game during the regular season) and the SeaHorses check in at No. 1 (84.6) The Golden Kings held foes to the fewest points (67.7 ppg) while the Alvark have had a comfortable gap, scoring 79.2 and yielding 71.1

For Chiba and Ryukyu, they are staging a high-stakes rematch in their two-game clash. The Jets beat the Kings 80-76 and 85-75 on May 5 and 6 at Funabashi Arena, and one league insider believes it will be a compelling series.

“They played recently and played two tough games,” the observer noted.

What will likely be the keys to the series?

“Chiba wants to get out in transition and score quickly,” the insider said. “They also really get rolling if they get hot from (3-point range).”

The Jets made 15 of 26 3s in a Game 1 win over the Brave Thunders before having trouble hitting the broadside of a barn from long range (6-for-28) in a Game 2 loss.

“Okinawa (Ryukyu) will need to control tempo and defend the 3-point line,” the source stated. “(On offense), Ryukyu will need to balance their inside attack and get their shooters going.

Veteran forwards Ryumo Ono and Leo Lyons are X-factors for the Jets, according to the source, who added this analysis: “If they are scoring, Chiba is tough to beat; if Ryukyu keeps them in control, they will be OK.”

Another source who keeps a close eye on the league, believes the Jets are headed to the final.

“I think the way the draw is now Chiba will win,” the pundit predicted on Monday. “I originally thought Kawasaki but Chiba were able to use their depth and conditioning to get through. Kawasaki looked very tired by the end yesterday.

“I felt the only game that had some doubt was Chiba and Kawasaki. The rest went to script. I think it will be a Chiba-Mikawa final.”

So what are a few focal points in the SeaHorses-Alvark showdown?

“Tokyo will come at Mikawa hard,” the second source said. “The key is how Tokyo handles the influence of J.R. (Sakuragi) — how they match up to him and how they make him defend.”

The first insider broke down a key facet of the upcoming showdown of former JBL powerhouse teams this way: “Mikawa will need to defend Tokyo’s ball screens. (The Alvark) set two to three a possession, so the Mikawa bigs will need to be able to stop the ball while also getting back to their men.

“Tokyo will need to take J.R. and Kosuke (Kanamaru, who was No. 9 in the league in scoring at nearly 15.7 ppg this season) out of their comfort zones, and not allow (Makoto) Hiejima to get in the lane for layups and easy assists.”

Coaching carousel

Dai Oketani has parted ways with the Osaka Evessa after three seasons at the helm, the West Division team announced last Friday.

The Evessa went 24-36 this season, missing the playoffs for the second straight B. League campaign. They were 28-32 in the league’s inaugural season.

Oketani, who turned 40 in December, guided Ryukyu to two titles in the bj-league (2008-09 and 2011-12). He led the Oita Heat Devils and Iwate Big Bulls in the now-disbanded league.

“I would like to express my gratitude to the team staff, athletes, front-office staff, cheerleaders and their families who fought until the end,” Oketani said in a statement. “Thank you very much.”

Rumor mill

Veteran American coach Don Beck is poised to return to the men’s pro ranks, according to a league insider. He has drawn interest from the Evessa and Toyama Grouses to take over as head coach or join Nagoya as an associate head coach, a league source told The Japan Times on Monday.

Since 2015, Beck has guided the WJBL’s Toyota Antelopes.

A former Alvark bench boss (2010-15) during the JBL/NBL era, Beck also coached pro teams in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Beck was a JBL Coach of the Year in 2012, when he led the Alvark to a league championship.

Beck, 65, began coaching at Santa Barbara (California) City College in 1978.

Bonus analysis

A third league insider reached out to this newspaper on Tuesday night with a few morsels of insight about the Jets-Kings and SeaHorses-Alvark matchups.

Breaking down keys to the first series, the source sees the speed of the game being a vital factor.

“For Chiba, they just need to play their fast-paced, high-scoring game,” the source commented. “They are tough to stop offensively so they need to stay aggressive and confident against a good defensive team. Attack the pick-and-roll, get easy baskets inside and find the open man outside.

“For Ryukyu, they need to limit turnovers and transition points of Chiba as well as play great pick-and-roll defense. They also have to be efficient on offense to keep up with Chiba’s scoring.”

Longtime SeaHorses coach Kimikazu Suzuki’s squad must be locked in on defense to limit the effectiveness of the Alvark’s bread-and-butter play, the source insisted.

“For Mikawa, the main key is defending the pick-and-roll that Tokyo does almost every play,” the insider opined. “Limit the easy baskets and open 3s. And then attack them inside on the offensive end with post-ups and rebounds.

“Tokyo needs to defend well inside and win the rebound battle. Also, limit the shooters of Mikawa, make them take tough contested 3s.”

Meanwhile, Ryukyu forward Ira Brown recognizes that the Jets present a big challenge for any opposing defense, including his team.

“Keys against defeating Chiba would be to slow down (center) Gavin (Edwards) and (guard Yuki) Togashi,” said Brown, a former Gonzaga University player.

“Chiba has such a well-balanced team,” he added. “So we just have to be solid on one-on-one defense and not overhelp.”

A bit of NCAA history

Two former title-winning players from storied NCAA programs are in action this weekend with a chance to add championships to their impressive resumes.

Alvark forward Jawad Williams competed for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, averaging 13.1 points as a senior when they captured the NCAA Tournament title in April 2005.

Ten years earlier, then-freshman Sakuragi (still known as J.R. Henderson), played a key role on the UCLA Bruins’ championship team.