The Tochigi Brex are playing at an astonishingly high level this season.
But it really shouldn’t be a big surprise.
After all, the nucleus of the team’s 2016-17 B. League championship campaign is still mostly intact.
At the same time, head coach Ryuzo Anzai, an assistant on the title-winning squad, has grown into his role as bench boss. He’s put his stamp on the team, too.
As star forward Ryan Rossiter noted on Sunday at Brex Arena Utsunomiya, the Brex are a hard-working team, but they have fun and they get along. He described Tochigi’s style of play as “carefree.”
Anzai, who turned 38 in November, is quite familiar with the Brex way of doing things. He played for the club from 2007-13, wrapping up his career in Utsunomiya, then served as an assistant coach from 2013 until 2017, taking over as sideline supervisor after 13 games (5-8 start) into the new season when departed title-winning mentor Tom Wisman’s replacement, Kenji Hasegawa, stepped down.
Through Wednesday, the Brex (18-4) are tied with East Division rival Chiba Jets Funabashi for the best record in the league. They dropped a 64-63 down-to-the-wire game against defending champion Alvark Tokyo on Wednesday. Seiya Ando nailed a game-winning outside jumper with 5 seconds remaining.
Rossiter, who joined Tochigi in 2013 after a stint in the NBA Development League, is a tone-setting player for the Brex. He is No. 2 in the first division in scoring (23.9 points per game) and third in rebounds (11.9).
Jeff Gibbs is enjoying a solid all-around season as well, providing 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals (No. 2 in the circuit) a game. Yusuke Endo is one of the league’s premier outside shooters, converting 42.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. That puts him at No. 5 on the current chart. Veteran power forward Kosuke Takeuchi remains a gritty inside force with timely rebounds and putbacks and clutch shots. Sunday’s effort wasn’t flashy — 10 points (eight on free throws), nine boards, two blocks — but was vintage Takeuchi.
Rossiter and Hironori Watanabe are averaging 4.4 and 4.6 assists per contest, respectively, slightly below the top 10 and an indicator of the team’s effective offense.
The website Basketball King named Watanabe as its November MVP based on fan voting, receiving 498 of 836 votes. The Brex went 8-1 in November, winning their final eight games of the month. Watanabe contributed 10.3 points and 3.9 assists in the month.
“I am really happy to think that many fans voted for it,” Watanabe was quoted as saying by the website.
Captain Yuta Tabuse, a catalyst for the team since 2008, has not played since Oct. 20 due to lower back pain and has only appeared in six games through Sunday, but the Brex have received vital contributions from top to bottom on their roster.
In other words, quality depth has been a big factor for Tochigi.
The players have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them, and they do their jobs consistently.
“I think the coach and team have a lot of confidence in me,” said Rossiter, a Siena (New York) College product.
“It’s a comfort with the team,” he added. “They trust me and I trust them, and it just allows me to just kind of go out there and play kind of carefree and confident.”
Indeed, that has helped the Brex compile impressive numbers to date. They are No. 2 in the first division in rebounding (39.3 per game), No. 2 in assists (21.2) and third in scoring (83.4 ppg).
“We have really good chemistry on and off the court,” Rossiter said on Sunday. “We are genuine just friends. The American players and Japanese players, we always joke, we always have fun, so I think that really carries onto the court where we all have each other’s backs and we feel comfortable with each other. And I think that really matters in games like this when it gets close . . . and you have that trust and that comfort with one another.”
After six years with the organization, Rossiter said there are no big surprises in terms of expectations.
“With the management and the coaches, you know it just comes down to winning,” he said. “There’s never any pressure to do anything more than just go get the win, so you don’t need to score 30 points — sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t — but as long as we win, everyone’s happy and the whole team knows that the ultimate goal is to win and win a championship.”
In a September article posted on the FNN Prime website, Tabuse commented on the importance of the team’s continuity.
“The fact that the coaches are the same (and) the players are nearly the same is quite big,” Tabuse said. “I think we should be able to feel a sense of unity. . .”
All-Star Game skills contests
A new event called the Skills Challenge was added to the All-Star festivities for the annual midseason showcase game, which will be held Jan. 19 in Toyama.
The league this week named four contestants for the event: Chiba’s Yuki Togashi, Kawasaki’s Ryusei Shinoyama and Ryukyu’s Narito Namizato and Ryuichi Kishimoto.
Seven players are listed as scheduled competitors for the 3-Point Contest: Chiba’s Kosuke Ishii, Kawasaki’s Nick Fazekas, San-en’s Shuto Tawatari, Mikawa’s Kosuke Kanamaru, Shiga’s Yusuke Karino, Kyoto’s Yusuke Okada and Fukuoka’s Masashi Joho.
For the Dunk Contest, four players were announced: Chiba’s Gavin Edwards, Nagoya’s Justin Burrell, Ryukyu’s Ira Brown and Osaka’s Soichiro Fujitaka.