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Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Mighty Osaka Evessa in the mood for a three-peat


Staff writer

The Osaka Evessa are a proud, confident basketball team. And they've clearly earned this distinction.

News photo
Small forward Kazuya Hatano (10) gives the Osaka Evessa a steady defensive presence in the starting lineup and consistent productivity on offense, while power forward Lynn Washington, a two-time All-Star and the bj-league's first-ever MVP in 2005-06, is the undisputed leader of the back-to-back champions. OSAKA EVESSA PHOTOS
News photo

Why? It's simple: They've won championships in the first two seasons of the bj-league's existence.

Osaka's quest for a third straight title starts on Tuesday in the 2007-08 season-opening game against the expansion Rizing Fukuoka. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. The game will be held at Accion Fukuoka.

And remember this: Kansai basketball fans will officially proclaim the day is akin to a national holiday.

Need proof? The Evessa's official Web site serves as a keen reminder to the team's die-hard boosters that Osaka is the home of Japan's reigning kings of the hardwood court.

"Road to three-peat! 2007-2008," are the words on the top banner of the club's Internet page.

That bold message was repeated during phone interviews last week.

"We play hard every night and we are very competitive," declared point guard Matt Lottich, a former Stanford University player.

"We are the national champion of Japan, which is very special for our families," he added. "It is a proud feeling to say that you are national champion in Japan."

Power forward Lynn Washington, the 2005-06 league MVP, believes Osaka faces a greater challenge this season to earn another title.

' 'We definitely have to be more on our toes now because the league has gotten better every year," admitted Washington, the team's captain.

The Evessa went 29-11 in the regular season last year, leading the league in victories and grabbing the No. 1 playoff seed. Then the Kensaku Tennichi-coached team won two more playoff games to earn the championship trophy. (The team posed for pictures with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 24 in Tokyo, a telltale sign that the team had arrived as a national symbol of success.)

Osaka begins the new 44-game season with four conference foes — the Takamatsu Five Arrows (the team it beat in the final last spring), the Oita HeatDevils, Fukuoka and the league's other expansion team, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, also comprise the new Western Conference.

The Evessa return the majority of their top players from a year ago, including starting center Jeff Newton, small forward Kazuya Hatano, high-energy backup point guard Haruhito Shishito and 3-point shooting specialist Naoto Nakamura.

All-Star guard Masashi Joho, however, was traded to the Tokyo Apache in May. And forward David Palmer, the 2006-07 bj-league MVP, did not return to Japan. His roster spot was filled by ex-Oita standout Mikey Marshall, a small forward with a knack for doing everything — shooting, passing, running the floor, rebounding, blocking shots and jumping — and making it look easy in the process.

Marshall will be the team's sixth man, Tennichi said. Then the coach gushed in excited tones about the team's potential on the fast break this season.

"We are always looking for the fast break," Tennichi said. "That should not change. . . . Marshall is very agile, very athletic and he grabbed 10 rebounds per game last year. That is much more than David Palmer, so I think we now are more agile than last year, so we can get more fast-break points."

Sounding like a full-time scout giving a report to his team's top-level management, Washington offered this assessment of Marshall's skills:

"He can do everything, pass, shoot, rebound . . . take the ball up the court and shoot. He can do everything and more. He makes the other players better."

Washington added: "You can't really say we were missing anything the last two years because we won the championship, but our game is going to flourish because Mikey's on the team."

Just days before the team's first game, Tennichi was asked what are the Evessa's primary objectives for the new season. He responded by saying, "To be the best defensive team in this league and the best rebounding team in this league."

Osaka excelled in both categories last season. Of the 12 players currently on its roster, eight of them had 13 or more steals a year ago. Newton, the Evessa's biggest player at 205 cm, was No. 1 in that category with 54 takeaways, while Lottich, with quick hands and a speedy first step, had one less steal.

Newton and Washington are a threat to grab 15-plus rebounds in every game, while Hatano's long arms and cat-like reflexes in the lane enable him to snare his fair share of boards, too.

Nakamura, meanwhile, moves into the starting spot at shooting guard. He joined the team midway through last season and instantly made his mark as a perimeter specialist, finishing with 40.6 percent success on 3-point shots (28-for-69). But Nakamura's main focus won't be on making a plethora of long-range baskets.

"I always stress to him about good defense," Tennichi said. "If you are a good defender, then you can shoot as many 3 points shots as you like."

The Evessa learned another valuable lesson over the past 12 months.

"I think that last year we had a little bit of a championship hangover to start the season," said Lottich, who got married in Chicago during the summer. "Our first eight games we were 3-5, so we will try to focus a little more this season.

"Last season was last season and this season presents new challenges."



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