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Friday, Nov. 2, 2007


With key players moving, Eastern Conference wide open as bj-league tips off

Staff writer

The nights are getting cooler, the days are growing shorter and professional basketball competition is heating up around Japan.

On Tuesday, the Osaka Evessa defeated the Rizing Fukuoka in the first bj-league game of the 2007-08 season.

Now it's time to take a closer look at the five Eastern Conference teams. On Saturday, The Japan Times provides a Western Conference preview.

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Niigata Albirex BB
Coach: Masaya Hirose
2006-07 record: 25-15

Key returning players: PG Makoto Hasegawa, SG Naoto Kosuge, F Matt Garrison, F Daiki Terashita, PG Takamichi Fujiwara and SG Kimitake Sato.

Newcomers: PG M'Jumbe Williams (a Fresno State product), PG Shinya Osaki, F Rodney Webb (Florida Atlantic) and C Andrew Preston (Belmont University).

Key losses: The Albirex opted not to re-sign center Nick Davis, a Best Five Award winner last year and a consistent defender who helped the team reach the 2005-06 title game. Swingman Antoni Wyche, one of the bj-league's top passers last season, and forward Jack Hartman did not return.

Key questions: 1. Will Preston provide steady production at both ends of the floor? 2. Will the team miss Davis' leadership? 3. Can Kosuge, a constant threat from the perimeter, become a double-digit scorer?

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Sendai 89ers
Coach: Honoo Hamaguchi
2006-07 record: 19-21

Key returning players: G Kenichi Takahashi, F/C Ryan Blackwell, PG Hikaru Kusaka, F Hideki Katsumata, SG Shinya Sato and G Daichi Matsuta.

Newcomers: F Nick DeWitz (Oregon State), F Bobby St. Preux (Northern Kentucky product; played in the ABA last season; appeared in a Gatorade commercial with Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade) and C Patrick Whearty (Holy Cross; 2003 Patriot League Player of the Year; played for Unitri Uberlandia in Brazil last season).

Key losses: F Mamadou Diouf, a proficient scorer from anywhere on the floor, joined the Saitama Broncos during the offseason. F Michael Chappell moved on to the Adelaide 36ers of the Australian League.

Key questions: 1. Can Kusaka and Takahashi become an even stronger backcourt duo this season? 2. Can Blackwell carry the offensive load? 3. Can DeWitz, St. Preux and Whearty make a quick adjustment to their new team?

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Toyama Grouses
Coach: Masato Fukushima
2006-07 record: 13-27

Key returning players: PG Takanori Goya, SF Kazutoshi Ohta, G, Satoshi Yonemoto, G Hirokazu Nema and F Seiichi Nojiri.

Newcomers: SG Masayuki Kabaya, SG Yoshihiro Tachibana, C Uka Agbai (Boston College grad; served as the captain for TBB Trier in Germany and Pyrinto Basketball Club in Finland during one-year stints on both teams; coached at Northeastern University in 2006-07); F Chaz Spicer (Utah State product); SG Robby Joyner (North Carolina-Ashville product; previously played for the Shougang Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association).

Key losses: F/C Jerod Ward, the bj-league's No. 3 scorer last year (23.7 ppg), is not back. Guard Nile Murry, hard-nosed forward Nate James have departed, while F Han Dae Kyun joined the Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Key questions: Can Goya, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, become a game-changing, go-to player for the Grouses this season? 2. Will Fukushima's club find successful on-court chemistry despite the addition of numerous new players? 3. How effective was the club's offseason development program?

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Saitama Broncos
Head coach: David Benoit
2006-07 record: 15-25

Key returning players: F Ryuichi Horikawa, G Taishiro Shimizu, PF Gordon James, F Kazuhiro Shoji, F Kazuki Hara, SG Kosuke Shimizu, PF/C Andrew Feeley.

Newcomers: F Mamadou "Madou" Diouf (a threat to post a double-double in every game, as well as make a steal or block a shot on every defensive trip down the floor), PG Aaron Lawrence Sakai, and C Justin Howard (he's played professionally in Mexico, Argentina, France and Syria).

Key losses: F Marcus Toney-El and F David Benoit, the latter of which retired and became the head coach in the offseason.

Key questions: 1. Does the team have enough size in the middle to keep opponents from controlling the lane? 2. What type of impact will Sakai make at the point? 3. Will the team do the little things to win close games this season?

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Tokyo Apache
Coach: Joe Bryant
2006-07 record: 12-28

Key returning players: PG Darin Satoshi Maki, PG Kohei Aoki, SF Jumpei Nakama, F Dameion Baker and G/F John "Helicopter" Humphrey.

Newcomers: G/F Lee Jungjun, G Jun Iwasa, PF Nick Davis (former Albirex All-Star), SG Masashi Joho (ex-Evessa All-Star) and C Trevon Bryant (California State University Dominguez Hills product; shot-blocking ability is his trademark).

Key losses: F Michael Jackson, who picked up steals in a hurry.

Key questions: 1. Will the addition of Davis to the lineup give the team the inside-outside balance it seeks? 2. Will Aoki, who scored 20 or more points in nine of the final 12 games last season, continue his rise to stardom this season? 3. How quickly can Nakama recover from his knee injury, and how effective will he be once he returns to the rotation?


This year's expansion teams both play in the Western Conference, which gives each of the Eastern teams a better shot at earning a playoff berth.

The two-time reigning champion Osaka Evessa and last year's league runnerup, the Takamatsu Five Arrows, are also in the other conference.

That said, the Eastern Conference appears to be up for grabs. But Tokyo has raised many eyebrows during the season.

The Apache went 6-0 during the preseason, looking sharp during their trip to Okinawa. Baker and Davis have developed a healthy rivalry to see who'll grab the most rebounds at practice and in games, and that type of hustle becomes contagious.

"What we did over the summer was we filled some holes we had," Joe Bryant said, referring to 3-point shooting, rebounding and shot blocking.

"Nick Davis is a professional rebounder in the sense that he's guaranteed to get 10 to 15 rebounds a game. We never had that before."

For the Eastern Conference, several questions remain unanswered at this stage of the season, including these: Which team has the best starting five? Which team has the best bench? Which team has the most consistent defense? Which team can hit free throws in the fourth quarter?

What we can expect is this:

Humphrey remains the top scoring threat in the Eastern Conference. And if Tokyo's bench enables him a chance to rest, he'll be even more dangerous in the season's second half.

Keep an eye on the developing rivalry between Tokyo's Aoki and Sendai's Kusaka at the point, two exciting young playmakers.

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