FUNABASHI, CHIBA PREF. - In the history of Japanese top-flight men’s hoop circuits, there have been certain teams who got extra motivation from playing against each other.
That seems to currently be the case for the Chiba Jets Funabashi and Tochigi Brex.
There may not be any hatred or ill will, but the Jets and Brex have become the best rivalry in the B. League.
After the Jets earned a spot in the league title game by completing a sweep of the Brex in the semifinals on Sunday, players on both sides admitted they get an emotional boost each time the teams square off.
Tochigi has arguably been the most tenacious team in the B. League and led the league in offensive rebounds per game with 13 this season. But in the two semifinal games at Funabashi Arena, Chiba outrebounded its foe 92-69, including winning 27-26 on the offensive glass (Tochigi was missing Ryan Rossiter, one of its import big men, in the second game due to injury).
Jets point guards Yuki Togashi and Fumio Nishimura revealed head coach Atsushi Ono had always stressed that their tenacity would determine the winner each time they faced the Brex.
“We’d always fallen behind Tochigi in offensive rebounding and loose balls,” Nishimura said after his Jets beat Tochigi 88-83 to secure their place in the championship game, which will be played on Saturday at Yokohama Arena. “But we had a good mentality in these two days and were able to do so because of Tochigi.”
The Jets and Brex have competed in the East Division since the B. League’s inception in 2016, engaging in many tough battles with each other. They played six times during the regular season this year, with each team winning three of those games. The pair finished with the league’s top two records (Chiba was 52-8 and Tochigi finished 49-11), and many thought of this semifinal matchup as the de facto championship game.
“We beat the Brex one step before the final,” said Togashi, who had a game-high 21 points and eight assists in Game 2. “That gives us a lot of confidence going toward the final.”
Togashi said that he could not speak for the Brex, but said they are certainly a team that the Jets “don’t want to lose to.”
“We play in the same division and in terms of this year, I think we’ve been who we are because of the Tochigi Brex,” Togashi said. “I believe all the members on our team feel the same.
“That said, I think we have a healthy rivalry between us. We always compete so hard underneath the basket, we always compete so hard for rebounds. We’ve played games like that each time we’ve faced them.”
Yuta Tabuse, a former NBA player for the Phoenix Suns, insisted that it is a great thing for clubs and the league to have rivalries.
“We would like to be a team that leads the league. I feel that way even more by playing against Chiba,” the 38-year-old veteran said. “The (great) mood at this arena, and their competitiveness and all that . . . I mean, this semifinal reminded me of how fun and tough the game can be by playing against Chiba.”
The East Division has always been the toughest of the three in the B. League, with elite clubs such as Tochigi, Chiba and the Alvark Tokyo. The unfairness of this has often been pointed out (all three reached the semifinal round this year). For example, Tochigi entered the postseason as the fourth seed despite having recorded the second-best winning percentage in the league.
Despite this, Tabuse feels there are more pros than cons to the current setup.
“I’ve been saying this since the first season,” Tabuse said. “You have a better chance to improve by placing yourself in a tough circumstance. This (the league regulations) is not something we can control, but we have a better chance to raise our level by playing in such a tough conference. In fact, we’ve got to raise our level. So you have to take it positively, as a plus for yourself.”
The healthy rivalry between the two teams extends to the coaches as well.
Tochigi bench boss Ryuzo Anzai put the blame on himself for his team’s elimination from the playoffs, stating he still has much to learn.
The 38-year-old added that he wants to keep getting better through friendly rivalries with some of the young, bright head coaches around the league such as Ono, who is 41, and the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ 34-year-old Norio Sassa, as well as veteran non-Japanese coaches.
“Our growth will lead to the development of Japanese basketball,” Anzai said. “I’d like to keep working thinking what we should do to improve Japanese basketball.”