Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Akita struggling in step up to first division

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Akita Northern Happinets know their limitations.

But that hasn’t stopped second-year head coach Josep “Pep” Claros from pushing his charges to play an up-tempo game and exert energy from start to finish every time.

The Northern Happinets, last season’s second-division regular-season champions (54-6), have faced some difficulties adjusting to the top flight this season. They are 13-25 after a pair of road losses last weekend to the Sunrockers Shibuya.

In both defeats, Akita’s shooting woes were on display. In Sunday’s 69-62 loss, the visitors shot 34.4 percent from the field and were held to five fourth-quarter points. In the series opener, the Northern Happinets shot 36.2 percent and put only eight points on the board in the second quarter, which put them in a 38-21 hole entering the second half.

That’s been a common thread throughout the season.

The Happinets are averaging 71.1 points per game. Only the Shiga Lakestars (70.0 ppg) score fewer points.

What’s more, Akita is tied with the Yokohama B-Corsairs for the worst field-goal shooting percentage (41.6) in B1.

Claros, a well-traveled Spanish bench boss, addressed those issues in a post-game interview session with reporters on Sunday.

“Everybody can see that we are not shooting well and teams are playing defense on us with this (open) space,” Claros said. “They let us shoot and then if you don’t make it, it kills your confidence or the players also get frustrated.”

He also noted that star perimeter marksman Shigehiro Taguchi left the club in the offseason to join the Chiba Jets Funabashi. The loss of Taguchi’s impact — six consecutive seasons of double-digit scoring and 3-pointers that pierced opponents’ runs — has been profound, according to Claros.

A season ago, when they steamrolled B2 foes, the Happinets averaged 80.0 ppg, shot 45.5 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from beyond the arc.

“We are a totally different team from last year,” Claros told reporters. “We are the same organization, but a totally different team because we lose the best shooter (Taguchi) in the competition. . . . And after that, we had to change a lot our roles in the team.”

For instance, Takuya Nakayama was moved to point guard from the off-guard position.

What’s also hurt Akita’s chances of winning games is its defensive struggles (including yielding 76.4 ppg), a far cry from last season’s defensive domination that fueled its amazing record.

“This season, the players are mainly rookies or very young players and they still don’t have this consistency defensively speaking to go 100 percent for 40 minutes. Then this limits a little bit our rotation because we depend a little bit on the guys that can score.”

Sunday’s loss was a microcosm of Akita’s up-and-down season. Or as Claros put it: “Today, you can see, there is a moment (in the third quarter) that the team is very intense and we play very well and there were no imports at that moment. So if the team can compete at this level for 40 minutes, the other team cannot follow that rhythm.”

Veteran power forward Justin Keenan, a Ferris (Michigan) State alum, is fourth in B1 in scoring (22.5 ppg), while frontcourt mate and Wichita State product Kadeem Coleby leads the circuit in blocked shots (nearly 2.5 per game) while contributing 12.8 ppg. Nakayama is an offensive catalyst, averaging 8.5 points, nearly 5.9 assists (No. 3 in B1) and 2.2 steals (No. 1 overall).

In short, the team has many of the key building blocks already in place to be successful in the top flight. Bolstering that foundation is not an easy task, though.

Consistency and mental focus are a big part of that, players and Claros insisted.

Asked to reflect on the team’s performance to date and its chief strengths and weaknesses, Keenan provided a thoughtful response on Sunday: “Our strength, I think, is definitely our perseverance as far as continuing to fight, fighting every day in practice and we try to fight on the floor, not only for the team but also for our fans and the city.”

He continued: “Some of our weaknesses are sometimes we don’t have the focus that our coach wants us to have as far as running the plays that he would like us to do or on the defense, like yesterday we had a game plan and we just kind of didn’t stick to it. That’s kind of been our problem over the course of the season, because we play hard, but sometimes that won’t help you score or that won’t help you on your defensive game plan or in doing what’s right. I think sometimes we struggle on that and we are trying to correct that . . . so we can get better and get on a winning streak.”

Though he’s having a strong season, Keenan admitted he’s not satisfied with the results thus far, because “our whole focus is the team, and we are not where we want to be as a team.”

Despite his personal success as a third-year pro, Nakayama, a rising star out of Tokai University, is also hungry to help the team become better.

“I’m getting more and more playing time, so I’d like to pull the team even further (ahead),” Nakayama recently told Basketball King website.

He continued by saying that above-average play is needed for the team to elevate its status in the league’s pecking order.

“As long as we are getting play time, we cannot win unless we do more than expected,” Nakayama insisted.

B-Corsairs talk

Wins have been hard to come by for the Yokohama B-Corsairs this season. Through Saturday, they are 10-28 and sit in last place in the six-team Central Division.

But first-year bench boss Tom Wisman, who led the Tochigi Brex to a title in the B. League’s inaugural 2016-17 season, sees signs of progress.

In a weekend interview with The Japan Times, Wisman took stock of his team after its 83-82 bounce-back on Saturday victory over the San-en NeoPhoenix in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

B-Corsairs post player Arthur Stepheson, a near-midseason acquisition, led the club in scoring with 20 points. Stepheson started along with forward Edward Morris and guards Ryo Tawatari, Takuya Kawamura and Ken Takeda, who turned 40 in October.

“Saturday’s win was huge for us as a team because it took such a complete team performance to overcome being an import down,” Wisman told The Japan Times, referring to injured center Prince Ibeh, who’s averaging 2.6 blocks per game.

San-en collected an 82-69 win on Friday, its third win in three games this season against Yokohama before the series finale.

“Yes, I hope this is a springboard for performances to come,” Wisman confirmed.

“And although any win is a confidence booster, this one because of the circumstances should be even more so.”

In part because of Ibeh’s absence (left foot injury), Morris has an opportunity to play extended minutes. Ibeh is expected to be sidelined for three weeks.

The 203-cm Morris had 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists on Friday, followed by a 14-point, 11-rebound, four-assist effort the next day.

Which led Wisman to say, “Ed has really stepped up and made the most of the situation. Injuries are a part of a long season and when they occur, it presents an opportunity for the next man up. That is part of our team mentality.”

And Wisman pointed out that Morris’ energy down the stretch was a key ingredient in the team’s narrow win on Saturday.

“His two rebounds in the last 1:06 of the game, one for a putback basket and the other with 9 seconds left were game-winning plays,” the coach said.

The B-Corsairs were reminded last weekend that an aggressive mindset pays off. Wisman pointed to the team’s six free throws in the opener, which were inadequate.

And so, the team emphasized a different style the next day.

“We had a focus of going inside first,” Wisman stated.

He added: “We wanted to be aggressive and attack the basket early and then look for inside-out 3-point chances. I like catch-and-shoot 3s from either drive-and-kicks or post-out passes, as opposed to off-the-dribble shots. It turned out that we were able to score inside more, but I still like the 3, provided there is a healthy mixture and they come within the rhythm of our offensive flow.”

A look ahead

Before the two-week international break later this month for the next phase of FIBA World Cup qualifiers, the league is back in action from Saturday through Monday. (The Japan national team will travel to face Iran and Qatar on Feb. 21 and 24.)

The Saturday-Sunday matchups are: Tokyo vs. Shiga, Kawasaki vs. San-en, Nagoya vs. Kyoto, Tochigi vs. Shibuya, Hokkaido vs. Niigata, Toyama vs. Osaka, Fukuoka vs. Yokohama and Ryukyu vs. Chiba.

Starting Sunday, Mikawa plays host to Akita on back-to-back days.

Feedback

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