Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Revamped Levanga Hokkaido foundation includes key personnel from far-flung locales

by Ed Odeven

As the B. League gains recognition on the global scale, the infusion of international players and coaches will continue to be vital.

For instance, take a glance at the Levanga Hokkaido roster.

Like their 17 top-division foes, the Levanga are looking to put a competitive team on the court. And they are doing so with a first-year Brazilian head coach (Jose Neto) and veteran Spanish big man (David Doblas) along with returning frontcourt standout Marc Trasolini, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, as key cornerstones. Trasolini played college ball at Santa Clara University, the California school where future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash matriculated.

Doblas, who turned 37 in August, attended the University of Barcelona and began his pro career in 1999. He competed in the Argentine League last season for Estudiantes Concordia.

Hokkaido, which went 1-1 in its opening weekend, also features returning contributors Zen Maki, Asahi Tajima, Yoshitake Matsushima and 48-year-old icon Takehiko Orimo in the backcourt and Daisuke Noguchi and Ryota Sakurai, among others, in the frontcourt. California-born Sean Ichioka, a 198-cm forward, joined the club in the offseason after suiting up for the SeaHorses Mikawa in multiple stints from 2013-17.

Neto’s staff includes advisory coach Tomohide Utsumi, who guided the Japan women’s national team to the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Insights into the team’s new direction can be gleaned from written and spoken statements made by the 47-year-old Neto.

Tweeting in Portuguese before the club’s season opener, Neto had this to say: “. . . May God bless us and empower us for this new challenge! Let’s move on!”

In a video posted by the team last week, Neto spoke in English about his initial objectives for the team. “I believe this basketball it’s important to win. Maybe this is a new methodology. We need to build a new methodology to endure 40 minutes (and) play with intensity.

“I hope and I wish the team play like a hustle team during 40 minutes all the time. Our team need to control the game.”

Hokkaido trounced the visiting Osaka Evessa 70-53 on Sunday, a day in which Trasolini and Doblas both notched double-doubles, the former ending his work day in Sapporo with 25 points and 10 boards and the latter supplying 13 and 16.

A gritty effort produced the first victory of the Neto era, and later in a post-game news conference he cited the team’s 50 rebounds as a key to victory. He described it as a “defensive victory” before adding, “I think it was important to be able to show the proof that we could win as a team.”

The Levanga and numerous other teams in the B. League’s three-division setup embrace the internationalization of basketball.

As a result, contributions from all corners of the globe are essential to achieve success in the pro ranks.

Quick look at third division

In their first four games, the expansion Gifu Swoops have gone 2-2 under bench boss Kazuo Kasumoto. It’s a nice start as the Swoops build their foundation from scratch.

Meanwhile, the Koshigaya Alphas, previously known by their corporate sponsor’s name (Otsuka Corporation), have opened the third-division season with four consecutive victories.

Well-traveled forward Josh Peppers, who helped the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka earn promotion to B2 and B1 in 2017 and this year, respectively, was a key acquisition for coach Kazuto Aono’s club in the offseason. The University of Central Florida alum is averaging 19.5 points per game. In the team’s season opener on Sept. 29, Peppers had 22 points, eight rebounds and nine assists.

Frontcourt mate Kyle Richardson, a Portland State product, leads the Saitama Prefecture-based Alphas with 21.2 ppg.

What others are saying

In anticipation of the Brisbane Bullets’ regular-season opener on Thursday against the host New Zealand Breakers, Jim Becker penned an insightful team-preview article posted on news.com.au.

“How the Bullets get the best out of Japanese sharpshooter Makoto Hiejima is the game’s biggest mystery because they want him to take the outside shots that can change the night’s momentum,” wrote Becker.

Hiejima spent the previous five seasons as a go-to player for the SeaHorses, starting in the NBL era as a rookie in 2013.

Lakestars talk

Australian sideline supervisor Shawn Dennis, in his second season at the helm in Shiga, looked ahead to this week’s road series against the Brave Thunders, the impact of this year’s two-import, all-the-time regulation (in the past, it alternated between two and three for half of the game in the B. League) and more in an interview.

“One big difference has been the time being played by the imports,” Dennis commented. “I think this will be significant as the season goes on. With the tough schedule and this amount of playing time by the imports, there could be some very interesting scenarios in regards to injuries, etc.”

As for his team, he sees the frontcourt tandem of returning standout D’or Fischer and newcomer Gani Lawal as vital to its success.

“I feel for us as we understand how to continually grow the partnership of Fischer and Lawal we will have a very good import pairing,” Dennis said. “Also as our locals become more confident in themselves, I feel we will compete at a higher level.”

After earning a split against the visiting Niigata Albirex BB by picking up a Sunday triumph, Shiga shifted its focus to a road series against Kawasaki.

“Obviously a huge test for us this week against Kawasaki,” Dennis said Wednesday. “They are playing very well and in an extremely aggressive manner. Their agility up and down the court is very good and will test our defensive transition. They are completely different with the two (new) imports (Vernon Macklin and Shane Edwards) they have and become very mobile.”

Kawasaki’s depth will pose challenges for teams, according to Dennis, who added that the eventual return of injured star Nick Fazekas “will give them two very different styles that you will have to deal with.”

Upcoming games

This week’s top-flight schedule was to begin on Thursday night (Niigata vs. Akita). A day later, it’s Tochigi vs. Toyama, Kawasaki vs. Shiga, Kyoto vs. Yokohama and Osaka vs. Fukuoka. Three series commence on Saturday: Shibuya vs. Hokkaido, Mikawa vs. Tokyo and Chiba vs. San-en.

Public display of gratitude

A few days before the season tipped off, Lakestars point guard Yutaro Nishi tweeted, “Thankful and blessed for this opportunity to play in the top league. Excited to see how much I can develop under this team this year!”

Keep an eye on . . .

The Grouses, guided by new mentor Don Beck, were impressive in back-to-back victories over the visiting Yokohama B-Corsairs last weekend, including a 101-77 win in the series finale. Big man Joshua Smith set the tone in the series with 39- and 25-point performances, making 28 of 33 shots (nearly 85 percent) from the floor.

“At this early stage I think Toyama will be the big improvers initially,” an opposing head coach commented on Tuesday.

Three unbeatens in B2

After two weeks, three of the 18 second-division clubs are without a loss: Ibaraki Robots, Shinshu Brave Warriors and Hiroshima Dragonflies, all of whom are 4-0.

Mailbag feature

Want to submit questions about the B. League for possible inclusion in upcoming installments of reader Q&As?

Send them to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp