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Saturday, April 21, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Evessa primed to retain bj-league title


Staff writer

When you win a league's first-ever championship, you establish a standard of excellence for your coaching staff, your players and your fans.

This is what Kensaku Tennichi has accomplished as the Osaka Evessa's coach.

Entering the playoffs, that is what the Evessa have replicated in Year 2 of the bj-league. Osaka finished the 2006-07 season as the league's top team, winning 29 of 40 games.

They went 31-9 in the regular season in 2005-06 and then posted two playoff victories to secure the title on April 30, 2006, at Ariake Colosseum, capping off a memorable first season with a 74-64 triumph over the Niigata Albirex BB.

"(We) won it last year, we know what it takes," said Evessa power forward Lynn Washington, the league's 2005-06 MVP. "All we've got to do is play hard and let the chips falls where they may."

Backup forward David Palmer echoed that sentiment.

"We have had the same group of guys primarily for the last two seasons," said Palmer, who averaged 17.4 points per game and has scored in double-digits in 34 consecutive games. "For us, we have experience all playing together. We post up, space the floor . . . and have guys that can do everything. "I think we are a good mix of players."

The playoffs begin Saturday.

The semifinal pairings are as follows: Osaka vs. the Oita HeatDevils (22-18) at 3 p.m. and the Niigata Albirex BB (25-15) vs. the Takamatsu Five Arrows (25-15) at 6 at Ariake Colosseum. The winners meet in Sunday's title game at 4:15 p.m. The third-place game tips off at 1.

Each of the four playoff teams has had three weeks to physically recover from the rigors of the regular season, and for the Evessa it gave All-Star center Jeff Newton, who missed the final four games with a dislocated joint in his right shoulder, a chance to rehabilitate his injury.

"At first, we were looking at it like . . . it is too long," Washington said of the long layoff, which reminds one of the break between a college football team's regular-season finale and its bowl game.

"But when Jeff got hurt against Takamatsu (on March 18) it worked out well (and gave) other players' nagging injuries time to heal, too."

Tennichi said he wants Newton to start in the playoffs. His 15.2 ppg and inside presence at both ends of the court are big keys for Osaka, especially against a big team like the HeatDevils.

"When we are on offense, we have to try to beat them off the dribble," Washington said. "They are really not that quick because they are big."

Andy Ellis is the No. 1 option for Oita on offense. The ex-Texas Tech player scores 25.1 ppg. Versatile small forward Mikey Marshall, a dangerous player in transition, put 15.0 ppg on the board.

"Those are the two major things we've got to worry about when we play them," Washington said of Ellis and Marshall.

Tennichi offered a different perspective, reflecting on what will be the key for his team this weekend.

Defensive rebounds, he said, is the No. 1 statistical category his team needs to dominate.

"Those three teams (Oita, Takamatsu and Niigata) take bad shots from the outside," Tennichi said, "but they are good at offensive rebounds and they are always looking for putbacks, so we don't want to let them to do that."

Evessa backup point guard Haruhito Shishito, 24, is an emerging talent. When Shishito plays the point, it gives Tennichi the option of moving starter Matt Lottich to shooting guard if the team wants to use a smaller lineup and utilize its quickness.

"This year is different," Tennichi said. "I think this year is more difficult because other teams have the big guys, so we have to do something against them."

Osaka has mixed up its defensive looks in recent games, using a combination of zone, man-to-man and pressure defense.

This, of course, means Shishito, shooting guard Masashi Joho and small forward Kazuya Hatano have increased their defensive responsibilities as Tennichi continues to concoct new schemes for his smaller, quicker team.

"Last year we were kind of a big team, but this year, conversely, we are kind of a small team," Tennichi said.

For Washington, being the team's undisputed leader is a role he's happy to have.

It also means he's not afraid to take charge.

"If the team needed me, I knew I had to step up," he said.

But even an MVP can try to be too valuable at times.

Listen to Washington's explanation: "Maybe in the beginning of the season I was trying to do too much, but once we settled down, and figured things out everything just kind of fell into place."

Just like last season.

MORE COVERAGE: Read Ed Odeven's Web-exclusive playoff notebook at www.japantimes.co.jp/



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