Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Sunrockers orchestrate impressive turnaround under new bench boss Tsutomu Isa

by Ed Odeven

Sometimes teams need to shake things up to produce the desired results.

That certainly appears to be the case for the Sunrockers Shibuya, who were nearly a .500 team last season (28-32) but stumbled out of the gates to open the ongoing B. League campaign.

Assistant coach Tsutomu Isa was promoted to head coach in late October, when the team was 1-7. He replaced Geoffrey Katsuhisa, who was let go after one-plus season in charge.

Coinciding with the coaching change, the Sunrockers have improved dramatically. After going 2-8 in October, they went 6-3 in November. Sunday’s 80-57 demolition of the San-en NeoPhoenix raised their record to 12-12.

Shooting guard Tomoya Hasegawa said the team is now “starting over again.”

It’s “like a new season,” he stated. After a poor start, he added, “the team had to pay off its debt” and get a balanced slate again.

Several Shibuya players on Sunday said the team’s offensive system has been streamlined, with veteran center Robert Sacre describing it as more read and react and less thinking.

Isa’s methods are working.

“It’s just a free kind of offense and it’s good to see,” Sacre told The Japan Times. “Everything is upbeat and sharp and really fast in practice. Practices are sharp and we are just in and out, and guys are working hard and it’s good to see that.”

The Sunrockers have entered the discussion as a legitimate playoff contender, which wasn’t a possibility several weeks ago.

The Sunrockers face a big test this weekend, when they travel to Okinawa City to meet Isa’s former team, the West Division-leading Ryukyu Golden Kings (18-6).

Presiding over the powerhouse Golden Kings during the bj-league era, Isa cobbled together a jaw-dropping 125-31 record in his first three seasons at the helm, winning a pair of titles (2013-14, 2015-16). He was a longtime part of the Ryukyu coaching staff, joining the team before its inception in 2007 and helping establish a winning tradition there.

Similarly, that mission at Shibuya is what drives him.

Isa, 49, left the Golden Kings after the 2016-17 season and joined Katsuhisa’s staff as an assistant.

Hasegawa, who had eight points and two steals on Sunday off the bench, told The Japan Times that Isa’s greatest strength as a head coach is communication, conveying his message clearly and effectively to his players. He said it’s a “motivational style” of speaking that Isa uses to address his players, starters and backups alike.

“The players’ confidence has improved,” Hasegawa said, admitting that it’s higher now than when the season began. Even after a 93-73 road loss to the Akita Northern Happinets on Dec 12, the Sunrockers maintained a positive mindset, he added.

“Winning equals confidence,” Hasegawa declared.

When point guard Leo Vendrame is operating at a high level, the Sunrockers offense can pile up points in a hurry. Early in his pro career, he has struggled at times with too many turnovers. But now, at age 25, the Fukuoka Prefecture native has shown signs of growth and appears on the verge of having his best season yet. Through Sunday, he’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.5 assists. He’s dished out 109 assists and limited the turnovers to 49. (Last season, he averaged 11.2 and 2.4, and posted totals of 10 and 2.5 the season before that.)

“He has one of the biggest roles on our team. When he’s going, we’re going,” said Sacre after Vendrame’s nine-assist outing on Sunday. Vendrame handed out 11 assists in the series opener.

“We need him to stay consistent,” Sacre said of Vendrame. “I always tell him: I don’t want you to be good, I want you to be great. The bar is now too high for him. He can’t go too low a certain level. Good is not acceptable anymore. He has to be great each and every night to be successful, and I’m very proud of how he’s handling that. He’s becoming a really great professional player.”

With Vendrame setting the tone, Sacre, a Gonzaga University product, and former Duke University player Ryan Kelly have formed a potent duo in the frontcourt on par with any in the league. Earlier in their careers, Sacre and Kelly competed together on the Los Angeles Lakers — Sacre from 2012-16 and Kelly from 2013-16 — so they share a comfortable level that others in the B. League don’t have.

“We know each other’s game . . . so we know how to play with one another,” said Sacre, who’s averaging 18.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. “We know where we want each other’s shots and how he works off of pick-and-rolls, and we know how to work together. It’s been great on and off the court with him. I’m glad we got him. He’s going to really help us throughout this whole season.”

Kelly’s productivity has already been a big plus for Shibuya. He leads the team in scoring (21.1, No. 6 in the league), rebounding (10.4, No. 8), blocks (1.2, No. 9; just ahead of Sacre’s 1.1 to round out the top 10) and steals (1.5, No. 8).

“He’s really helped us open up the floor and made the spacing a bit wider,” Sacre said of Kelly, whose father-in-law is former NFL head coach Bill Cowher.

According to Isa, Sacre and Kelly have worked well in tandem and provided strong leadership for the club.

Overall, Isa said, the team’s on-the-court energy has been strong of late. He also cited “great team energy” as one of the keys to victory on Sunday.

Hasegawa agreed, saying each “bench member and starting member (strives) to strengthen their positions.”

Levanga talk

With a bounce-back 84-79 win over the visiting Akita Northern Happinets last Saturday, the Levanga Hokkaido picked up their sixth victory in 24 games.

With a leadership change at the top, Tomohide Utsumi was handed the coaching reins earlier this month. He replaced Jose Neto as head coach. The Levanga have gone 2-3 since Utsumi became the new bench boss.

Veteran forward Marc Trasolini said he believes the coaching change has had a positive impact on the team.

“It feels very positive so far,” Trasolini told this newspaper. “Besides one game against Chiba, we have played much better on offense and are much more competitive in our games. So he is doing a good job in a difficult situation.”

Hokkaido is tied with the Yokohama B-Corsairs for the second-worst record in the first division; only the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka and Shiga Lakestars (both t 5-18) have fewer wins.

Which is why a collective sense of urgency is a reality for Trasolini and his teammates.

“Of course we all want to win more and get our record up to a better level,” Trasolini said. “Hopefully we can build some momentum soon and get higher in the standings.”

A look ahead

For the holiday weekend, there are games on tap on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Up first: Kawasaki plays host to Nagoya in their series opener on Friday. A day later, the other 16 B1 teams begin their weekend series. It’s Mikawa vs. Niigata, Shiga vs. Kyoto, San-en vs. Toyama, Akita vs. Chiba, Yokohama vs. Tokyo, Osaka vs. Tochigi, Fukuoka vs. Hokkaido and the aforementioned Ryukyu-Shibuya two-game set.

Tokyo newcomers

The Alvark on Wednesday announced that former Georgia Tech forward Avi Schafer and Tokai University’s Gen Hiraiwa have joined the team.

The 205-cm Schafer, who hails from Hyogo Prefecture, was a non-scholarship player for Georgia Tech. He appeared in four game in the 2017-18 college campaign and two games this season (a combined three minutes in November).

Schafer attended St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo before going to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire for his high school senior year. He has represented the Japan national team in FIBA Asia U-18 and U-19 events and in this year’s Asian Games.

Hiraiwa, 21, is listed as a special designated player. The 199-cm forward is a third-year student at Tokai.

Feedback

Contact the reporter: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5