The Shinshu Brave Warriors have excelled this season under the steady leadership of head coach Michael Katsuhisa.
The Brave Warriors (43-11 through Sunday) are poised to finish atop the B. League second division’s Central Division standings. Furthermore, the Nagano Prefecture-based team owns the third-best winning percentage among the 36 teams in the first and second divisions. Only the top flight’s Chiba Jets Funabashi (45-8) and Tochigi Brex (43-10) have higher winning percentages.
In Katsuhisa’s first season at the helm, Shinshu has already surpassed by a large margin its victory total from a season ago (25-35 overall record), when Ryutaro Onodera patrolled the sideline.
The Brave Warriors, who joined the now-disbanded bj-league as an expansion team in 2011, are also in the hunt for the B2 championship. Other top contenders include the Shimane Susanoo Magic (40-14), Gunma Crane Thunders (39-15) and Kumamoto Volters (39-15).
While a postseason title or runner-up position normally signals promotion to the top division, the B. League doesn’t automatically guarantee that this will occur. After reviewing all B2 teams’ finances, Shinshu was informed that it wasn’t eligible to receive promotion due to its economic state of affairs, the B. League announced in mid-March. The Brave Warriors, who were not profitable last season, still had more debts than revenue toward the end of the just-completed fiscal year, and therefore couldn’t receive a B1 license, Nikkan Sports reported.
Katsuhisa said he was “very devastated” when he found out about the B1 license issue.
Off-court issues, however, have not hampered the team’s play. The Brave Warriors whipped Earthfriends Tokyo Z 92-71 on Sunday at Ota City General Gymnasium to complete a two-game sweep. In the series finale, center Wayne Marshall and forward Richard Roby scored 18 points apiece and point guard Kaito Ishikawa, a key offseason signing who played for the Sendai 89ers last season, contributed 11 points and four assists. Eleven of 12 Warriors who played put points on the board, and they shot 30-for-45 from 2-point range. Roby, a University of Colorado product, pulled down 12 boards and handed out five assists, while Marshall, a Temple University alum, snared nine boards and made four steals.
It was a clinical performance by a team possessing clear instructions and roles.
Even so, team leader Anthony McHenry sat out the game, watching intently from a seat just behind the row of chairs for the players and staff. In his second season with Shinshu, McHenry, a four-time bj-league champion with the Ryukyu Golden Kings, remains a tone-setting force at both ends of the floor. Case in point: On March 23, he crafted a triple-double (32 points, 22 rebounds, 11 assists) along with three steals and a block against the Nishinomiya Storks. He’s averaging nearly 19.0 points per game.
Marshall said defense is always a focal point for the team, and he prides himself on being an anchor and rim protector in the middle. Coping with an assortment of injuries in the past, the veteran pivot said he continues to play the game the “right way,” and also wants to display his high basketball IQ whenever he steps onto the court. The team’s energy and effort each game has been impressive, according to Marshall, who previously played for the Osaka Evessa, Yokohama B-Corsairs, Shimane and Kanazawa Samuraiz, as well as Shinshu in 2012-13.
Entering last weekend’s series against Earthfriends, Shinshu had the stingiest defense in the 18-team second division, yielding 70.4 points per game) and holding foes to a B2-low 41.4 percent on field-goal attempts. The Brave Warriors’ recipe for success also includes No. 1 rankings for 3-pointers made per game (9.4) and blocks (4.0), while checking in at No. 2 in steals (8.0) and turnovers committed (10.3).
Among individual league leaders, big man Marshall is fifth in scoring (22.6 ppg) and second in blocks (2.0), while Ishikawa is fourth in assists (6.8).
Like many NBA teams these days, Shinshu relies on long-distance shooting as a major component of its offense. The Brave Warriors entered the weekend series with 1,465 3-point attempts, with their foes taking just 983. Six of Katsuhisa’s players had canned 50 or more 3s: Yuta Osaki, Hiroaki Takei, Luis Kurihara, Ishikawa, McHenry and Marshall, with Ishikawa topping the chart with 89 makes.
Furthermore, based on their opportunistic defense, the Brave Warriors had outscored their foes 785-490 on points from turnovers. Their dominant play also showcased their open-court athleticism, outpointing opponents 474-274 in fast-break scoring.
The speedy Ishikawa, who averaged 11.0 points and 5.4 assists for Sendai in 2017-18, is a catalyst for the team’s efficient offense. The coach described him as a good player who displays intelligent instincts. He has swagger and confidence, Katsuhisa added, and a desire to attack while on offense. His high-energy defensive play, while aggressive at times, also features gambles.
“You have to live with both the good and the bad,” the coach continued, describing Ishikawa as playing “with a chip on his shoulder,” but noted that big shots and big plays are a key part of Ishikawa’s overall output.
Ishikawa’s court vision and decision making have impressed McHenry, who said his teammate is playing “at a very high level.”
Before games, Ishikawa gains inspiration by watching YouTube highlights of NBA point guards Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, he said. And while he’s been satisfied with his overall game this season, Ishikawa told this newspaper that he still wants to take his game to a higher level, noting the quality and depth of the point-guard corps in B1. “Raising my intensity level is important,” he acknowledged, saying he receives positive feedback and advice from Katsuhisa.
From a broader perspective, Katsuhisa’s message to his players was clear from the outset in training camp.
“The message was a lot of people asked us about how many wins and losses, where do you think you’ll end up, and it was not about that,” Katsuhisa said. “It was about us getting better every day, and people like the catchy title in the paper and so they want to hear we are going for this or that or whatever, and we said our goal is to get better every day.
“We really just tried to focus on that.”
As for trying to create a team culture conducive to winning, “I think it’s more in your actions, and so those were the things we would talk about getting better every day,” commented Katsuhisa, who has previously piloted the Shimane Susanoo Magic and Yokohama B-Corsairs. “How you treat every practice: Are you trying to get better? Are you focused? . . . It’s not just about talking the talk, it’s about doing it every day.”
He cited effort, mentality, work ethic, communication and respect as focal points on the team.
Starting his coaching career as a B-Corsairs assistant in 2011 under former NBA guard Reggie Geary, Katsuhisa now says it was a valuable learning experience.
“His approach and our approach in Yokohama was get better every day,” Katsuhisa recalled, “and to try and play our best basketball at the end of the season. Obviously I learned a lot from Coach Geary, and that’s been my approach as well. Though one year I would say that it was different was my second year in Shimane (2016-17). We had a clear goal of making it to B1, and I felt we had the talent to do it, and obviously the approach is still the same — get better every day — but at the same time the message was with the B2 rules the way they are, 60-game playoff race. You had to finish first to make the playoffs. So a 60-game playoff race, a sense of urgency. Move up to B1. . .”
What has been the driving force of Shinshu’s success this season?
“I think what jumps out to most people is we shoot the most 3s in the league by far, and we offensive rebound the fewest,” Katsuhisa noted on Sunday before adding, “Number one, I’m not a huge stat guy; not that I don’t look at them or anything like that. Like today, we shot maybe the least 3s this season (14 attempts from long range). But we’ll take what the defense gives us and we want to make the right play.”
McHenry, for one, insisted that Katsuhisa’s leadership has thrived because of his “excellent teaching” on both ends of the court. “And our young players don’t have a lot of experience and he’s done a great job of teaching them how to prepare each day.”
This season, rock-solid fundamentals are trademarks of the Brave Warriors way. Flashy plays, of course, happen, as do give-and-go sequences that lead to layups and wide-open jumpers.
“I think we have great spacing. I think that we play well together. We don’t turn the ball over much, although that can be up and down at times,” Katsuhisa stated.
“I think the big thing is we have guys that don’t care about stats,” he accentuated. “When you talk about Wayne Marshall and Anthony McHenry — anybody that knows me knows that I think Wayne is pretty much the greatest in the world; the guy has the greatest heart, the highest IQ; he’s the greatest teammate, he makes his teammates better. And anybody that knows Mac knows what kind of special player he is. And when you have those two guys anchoring your team, your team is going to make the right play. You are going to play together, and you are not concerned with stats.”
Evidence of team unity was on display in Sunday’s game against Earthfriends. After Roby took a charge late in the first quarter, three teammates quickly walked over to him and helped pull him up from the court. And with about 7:45 left in the third quarter, after a Marshall steal triggered a 2-on-1 fast break, which led to Takato Saito getting fouled on a layup attempt, the Brave Warriors bench erupted in animated support for their teammate.
Weeks ago, when the B. League rejected Shinshu’s hopes of acquiring a B1 operating license, meaning the team will remain in B2 for at least one more season. Katsuhisa saw an opportunity to deliver an important message in a team meeting.
“Most players don’t get to end their careers saying they’ve won a championship, and so we have an opportunity, we’re in a position, to play for a championship,” he recalled telling the players.
“And after that meeting, I haven’t had to talk about motivation at all. Everybody has been focused, so that’s been great.”
McHenry said, “I think we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve still got a lot left, but from preseason to where we are now, I feel we’ve (improved a lot).”
In McHenry’s view, the team’s performance in games is directly linked to its no-nonsense approach at practice.
“We are trying to execute at a high level every day in practice, and that tends to carry over into the game,” he told The Japan Times.
“I just try to lead by example as far as like what I do on the court. I try to help out the younger guys dodge some of the pitfalls I had when I was younger as well.”
For Roby, the issue of playing at B1 or B2 isn’t the most crucial thing on his mind right now. Instead, it’s all about how the team finishes the season.
“I want to capture a championship,” he said, smiling.
A look ahead
After a busy slate of midweek games — all 18 B1 teams were in action on Wednesday night — the top flight returns to its normal weekend series format.
Here are the matchups that begin on Friday: Tochigi vs. Tokyo, Kawasaki vs. Toyama and San-en vs. Yokohama. The other six series, which start a day later, are as follows: Akita vs. Shibuya, Hokkaido vs. Chiba, Niigata vs. Mikawa, Nagoya vs. Osaka, Shiga vs. Ryukyu and Ryukyu vs. Kyoto.
The reigning B1 champion Alvark Tokyo sank 13 of 17 3-pointers in their 110-61 rout of the Sunrockers Shibuya on Wednesday at Aoyama Gakuin University Memorial Hall.
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