Despite last Friday’s abrupt end to the B. League season, the campaign gave fans a number of memorable feats since its opening weekend last October.
What’s more, there isn’t a 2019-20 B. League champion. Instead, there are three division champs based on their final win-loss records before league chairman Masaaki Okawa announced the season was done due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
This adds an interesting element to next season’s storyline. Technically, the Alvark Tokyo, back-to-back title winners over the past two years, will still be defending champions – though I think it’s fair to suggest that all teams will enter the upcoming season with a fresh outlook and a clean slate.
This season produced many what-ifs and countless questions, leaving an asterisk in this nation’s basketball history book.
First and foremost, of course, is this: Who would’ve won the championship trophy?
On a related note, would the Utsunomiya Brex, Chiba Jets Funabashi, Sunrockers Shibuya, Kawasaki Brave Thunders, Ryukyu Golden Kings, Osaka Evessa or any other playoff-bound team have found a way to get past the Alvark?
The coronavirus pandemic forced the B. League to suspend the season in late February and again in mid-March before calling it off for good with 19 games still to be played.
Longtime SeaHorses Mikawa sharpshooter Kosuke Kanamaru delivered a riveting performance on March 15, which turned out to be the final day of league’s fourth season. He buried 11 of 17 3-pointers en route to 45 points against the Yokohama B-Corsairs.
SeaHorses big man Davante Gardner topped the scoring chart with 23.4 points per game, edging the Brave Thunders’ Nick Fazekas (23.2) in the high-profile category.
Jets playmaker Yuki Togashi, the circuit’s most popular player, crafted an impressive stat line as a passer with a league-best 6.5 assists per game. With backcourt mate Koh Flippin, a rookie, emerging as one of the most exciting youngsters in the league, Togashi often thrived when he shifted to shooting guard and scored points in a hurry off the dribble and via the team’s patented pick-and-rolls.
Sunrockers captain Leo Vendrame, now 26, continued his rise to stardom, giving sideline supervisor Tsutomu Isa, a two-time title-winning coach during his tenure with the Golden Kings in the bj-league era, a bona-fide commanding presence on the court. Blessed with athleticism and a flair for showmanship, Vendrame’s leadership skills were more evident this season than in the past, which helped transform Shibuya into a playoff contender after several up-and-down seasons.
Teammate Ryan Kelly, a former Los Angeles Laker, called this “Leo’s team” in a conversation with Hoop Scoop in January, underlining the point that he leads by example.
Center Sebastian Saiz, who hails from Spain, was an anchor in the low post for the Sunrockers and was a virtual lock to notch a double-double whenever he stepped onto the court. (This columnist endorses bringing Saiz back for another season, helping make the club a potential title contender for the 2020-21 campaign).
Golden Kings center Jack Cooley produced eye-popping numbers in his first season in Japan. The former Notre Dame player finished ninth in scoring (18.4 ppg) and hauled in a league-best 13.3 rebounds per game. Among his best games: 31 points and 21 rebounds (including eight offensive boards) against the Niigata Albirex BB on March 15. In his last 10 games, Cooley pulled down five or more offensive rebounds eight times. A relentless presence in the paint, Cooley was truly impressive.
Evessa frontcourt standout Josh Harrellson delivered all-around excellence for the club in bench boss Kensaku Tennichi’s first season back in charge. The University of Kentucky alum placed in the top 10 in points (19.8, seventh), rebounds (12.7, second), blocks (1.1, third), steals (1.2, 10th) and 3-point shooting percentage (39.3, eighth). If MVP voting had taken place, Harrellson should have been a top-five choice.
Astute mentor Tennichi, who from 2005-10 led the Evessa to three bj-league titles and four championship game appearances, brought gravitas and a steady demeanor in his return to the Osaka sideline and put his stamp on the team.
Lakestars point guard Takumi Saito thrived with a change of scenery, moving from Tokyo to Shiga. After averaging 3.6 points and 2.0 assists in 28 games (zero starts) as a backup for the Alvark in 2018-19, Saito started all 41 Shiga games and contributed 13.0 points and 5.4 assists, trailing only Togashi in the latter category. Saito gets the nod as the league’s Most Improved Player.
A notable showcase of the league’s elite clubs headlined the news on Jan. 4, when the Brave Thunders collected their 16th straight victory (they dropped the series finale against the Toyama Grouses). On the same day, the Golden Kings recorded their ninth consecutive triumph by halting the Brex’s 15-game win streak.
While established stars and well-known role players continued to make an impact for all 18 teams, two more rookie guards in particular grabbed the spotlight, too. Kai Toews, who left the University of North Carolina Wilmington midway through his sophomore year in December, joined a deep, versatile Utsunomiya club after the holiday break. He showed flashes of brilliance in 12 games, including 11 points, five assists and a steal in 15-plus minutes against the Evessa on Jan. 25.
Then there was the debut of Yuki Kawamura for the rebuilding San-en NeoPhoenix. The 18-year-old Yamaguchi Prefecture native burst onto the scene for the final few months of the COVID-19-shortened season. In his second pro game, he put 21 points on the board against the Jets on Jan. 21. Three days later, Kawamura had a season-best 24 points and four steals against the Albirex. It was a dynamic debut for Kawamura in 11 games.
Like Kawamura, the B. League has a bright future after the disappointment of a season without normal closure and the difficult work that lies ahead to resume operations for 2020-21 and beyond.