Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Returning core makes Alvark title favorites

by Ed Odeven

When a team ascends to the top by winning a title, the players have a metaphorical target on their backs whenever they step onto the court.

This is the Alvark Tokyo’s reality for the 2018-19 season.

They are the defending champions. They are a battle-tested group of veterans. And they could be even better this season.

Coach Luka Pavicevic, now in his second year at the helm, has already had a full season to implement his system and gain the trust and confidence of his players. It’s been a sight to behold, a step-by-step process, with noticeable progress made month after the month.

The Alvark, who embraced their easy-to-declare-but-hard-to-always-follow team slogan (“We”), were a finished product when they stepped onto the court at Yokohama Arena in May and outplayed the Chiba Jets Funabashi in the championship game.

Four months later, the players are gearing up for another long 60-game campaign that gets underway on Oct. 6 against the visiting Sunrockers Shibuya at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi at 3:05 p.m.

In the final analysis, Pavicevic masterfully substituted his players in and out of the rotation last season and also juggled the challenges of injuries and guys missing time due to Japan national team duties.

The team’s returning players include Daiki Tanaka, Seiya Ando, Genki Kojima, Joji Takeuchi, Zack Baranski, Shohei Kikuchi, Jawad Williams, Alex Kirk, Takeki Shonaka and second-year pro Yudai Baba, who energized the champs with 14 points and a trio of steals in the title game.

The 198-cm Baba, who turns 23 in November, could become a breakout star this season. There was a sense that May’s playoff finale was Baba’s electrifying grand debut on the national stage, and he thrived in the spotlight with exquisite timing — daring forays through traffic, risky steals and youthful exuberance.

The Alvark have the luxury of giving Baba ample time to grow into his role as a key contributor. They are blessed with depth at every position. That depth now includes the addition of veteran power forward Milko Bjelica, a 207-cm newcomer from Serbia.

A three-team battle for the top spot in the East Division last season ended this way: Chiba (46-14), Tokyo (44-16) and Kawasaki Brave Thunders (41-19).

The Brave Thunders shift back to the Central Division this season, and the promoted Akita Northern Happinets, guided by second-year Spanish mentor Josep “Pep” Claros, replace them in the six-team East.

The Tochigi Brex improved by leaps and bounds during the 2017-18 campaign, finishing 34-26. It didn’t start well, though. Kenji Hasegawa proved to be a bad coaching hire for the 2016-17 champions, who didn’t give title-winning coach Tom Wisman a contract offer for this past season, thus ending his tenure. He resurfaced in an advisory role for the Yokohama B-Corsairs last November, then took over as bench boss early in the offseason.

The Brex, with Ryuzo Anzai at the helm from the get-go this season (he replaced Hasegawa early last fall) gives the proud franchise more stability as the Big Three of Yuta Tabuse, Ryan Rossiter and Jeff Gibbs look to return to title contention.

The Sunrockers Shibuya and Levanga Hokkaido, who went 28-32 and 26-34, respectively, in 2017-18, both appear capable of finishing with winning records this season if they stay healthy and catch a few breaks. But in the ultra-competitive East, the title hunt looks like a three-team quest: Tokyo, Chiba and Tochigi.

The Brave Thunders, buoyed by elite scorer Nick Fazekas’ talent, look to set the tone in the revamped Central.

Expect the SeaHorses Mikawa, led by ageless leader J.R. Sakuragi, to be a spirited division contender as well. A 48-12 mark from last season was what the team accomplished before falling short in the playoffs, Now, Kimikazu Suzuki’s squad is adjusting to life without spark plug Makoto Hiejima, who joined the Brisbane Bullets in the offseason.

And based on Wisman’s overall track record in Japan and elsewhere, the B-Corsairs (18-42 last season) won’t be a pushover. Expect major improvements — especially consistency from the B-Corsairs and a renewed effort by flamboyant perimeter marksman Takuya Kawamura to claim a starring role.

In the Central, the Niigata Albirex BB showcase the game-changing talents of reigning scoring champ Davante Gardner. To improve upon their 28-32 record from the past season, a more balanced scoring attack could be a key. With Gardner, they are always a dangerous foe. The San-en NeoPhoenix and Toyama Grouses, who went 25-35 and 24-36, respectively, last season, both appear capable of reaching the playoffs, too. They were both hampered by inconsistent play in 2017-18, and new Toyama bench boss Don Beck demands excellence and disciplined play, which are building blocks for success

Any number of teams could make big improvements from a season ago. For instance, the Diamond Dolphins have impressed in the preseason, getting big production from newcomer Markeith Cummings, a Kennesaw State product, and solid numbers from returning veterans, including Justin Burrell, Shuto Ando and Taito Nakahigashi.

Perhaps moving to the West from the Central will boost Nagoya’s playoff chances. But they must contend with the loaded Ryukyu Golden Kings, who retooled their lineup after a 42-18 season. The results so far have been impressive with titles at The Terrific 12 last weekend in Macau and the B. League Early Cup Kansai tournament on Sept. 9. Adding mobile big men Josh Scott and Jeff Ayres, gritty forward Hayato Kantake and floor leader Narito Namizato has transformed the Kings into a more well-rounded club.

The West’s Kyoto Hannaryz (34-26 in 2017-18), Shiga Lakestars (24-36) and Osaka Evessa (24-36) will compete with another new division rival, the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka, who make the jump from the second division and boosted their coaching staff with the addition of associate head coach Bob Nash and his son, Bobby, as an assistant to sideline supervisor Ryuji Kawai. The Nishinomiya Storks and Shimane Susanoo Magic were both demoted.

Surveying the overall landscape of the top flight, the Alvark, Jets, Brex, Brave Thunders, SeaHorses and Golden Kings look like title contenders right now.

That, of course, could change.

A dozen other teams will have a big say in what materializes over the next seven-plus months.