B. League teams and players understand that the threat of COVID-19 means the upcoming 2020-21 season won’t be held the same way as normal.
The league and its teams will need to remain focused on lowering the risk of infection within their clubs, while players will be competing in arenas that can’t be filled to capacity.
Nevertheless, the B. League’s stars are in high spirits and ready to showcase their skills this season, which will tip off across Japan on Friday.
“It was once thought the season would open behind closed doors,” said Alvark Tokyo guard and reigning league MVP Daiki Tanaka during an online news conference Sunday. “So even though there are limits on attendance, I’m excited to play in front of fans. I can’t wait to get on the court.”
The two-time league champions Alvark will begin their 60-game campaign Friday night with a marquee two-game series against the Kawasaki Brave Thunders at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi. The rest of the league will begin play on Saturday.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an abrupt ending to the 2019-20 season, which was called off in March with one-third of the regular season remaining. Even though a champion wasn’t crowned, if the Alvark — who won the previous two league titles — win this year the league will count the feat as a three-peat.
The top division (B1) will consist of 20 teams this year, two more than last year, again due to the pandemic. The teams will also be divided into two conferences — East and West — instead of three, for the first time since the league’s inaugural 2016-17 season.
The Hiroshima Dragonflies and Shinshu Brave Warriors, the top two second-division clubs last season, have been promoted to B1.
Tanaka said his team’s goal was to hoist the championship trophy at the end of the year, and that he’s ready for the challenges of a season that could potentially be affected by the pandemic.
“I’m looking forward to the upcoming season and I’m excited,” said the 29-year-old, whose team ended 2019 with a league-best .780 winning percentage. “But we all have to be ready to play under irregular circumstances. We have to make sure we play all 60 games and pay attention to things off the court. So it’ll be a challenge, but hopefully, we’ll overcome that and say it’s a successful season.”
Regarding attendance, the league is following the government’s guidelines and will allow clubs to fill venues to half-capacity at the start of the season.
Meanwhile, Yuta Tabuse, the Utsunomiya Brex’s veteran superstar, said the situation surrounding the virus didn’t have an impact on his offseason preparation.
“I’ve been working under the assumption we’d have a season as scheduled,” said Tabuse, who will turn 40 on Oct. 5. “So I haven’t really thought about how difficult it might be to prepare. My sole focus has been on making sure I get my body ready and preparing for the season as best as I can.”
Predicting what might happen this year is harder than ever, as teams have had to endure the effects of COVID-19 since the spring. Because of travel restrictions, many foreign players were late in joining their teams and some are still stuck in their home countries.
Filipino star guard Thirdy Ravena is supposed to make his professional debut with the San-en NeoPhoenix, who will open their season against the Chiba Jets Funabashi in Hamamatsu. As of Sunday, however, the 23-year-old was still in the Philippines.
“Right now, I’m still in the Philippines and have not met my teammates in person yet,” Ravena said. “But I’ve been in contact with our head coach (Branislav Vientic) and just like Makoto (Mamiya, assistant coach), we’ve been talking to each other and he’s sent everything I need to know about the team, whether it’s the plays, or names of my teammates.”
Some of the top players are determined to battle as hard as they can on the court in hopes of earning a spot at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Ryusei Shinoyama, the Brave Thunders’ veteran point guard, has been part of the Akatsuki Five the last few years, including at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. But he doesn’t think his spot is secured for 2020.
“I want to raise my level in all aspects of my game,” the 32-year-old said. “There are so many talented young point guards and any one of them could be selected. So I have a sense of urgency and want to show my game as best as I can, and hopefully come through the battles.”