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Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Two-time champion Evessa, Five Arrows anchor Western Conference power base


Staff writer

The 2007-08 bj-league season tipped off on Tuesday night. It was the first game for the expansion Rizing Fukuoka. A crowd of 2,475 watched the Osaka Evessa post a 91-71 victory.

A night later, the Evessa won 94-80 at Accion Fukuoka.

The key statistic in both games was easy to spot: third-quarter scoring. Osaka outscored Fukuoka 30-19 in the third in Tuesday's contest. In the rematch, the visitors held a 27-13 scoring advantage in the same period.

Dictating the pace of the game is the Evessa's trademark, and until proven otherwise, the best of the West reigns supreme in the bj-league.

And now (drumroll, please) its time to take a closer look at the five Western Conference teams.

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Osaka Evessa
Coach: Kensaku Tennichi
2006-07 record: 29-11

Key returning players: SG Naoto Nakamura, SF Kazuya Hatano, PG Haruhito Shishito, PG Matt Lottich, PF Lynn Washington and C Jeff Newton.

Newcomers: SF Mikey Marshall (spent last season with the Oita HeatDevils; attended Texas Tech University, playing under the winningest Division I basketball coach in history, Bobby Knight, who also coached Washington when the latter was at Indiana University), G Shota Konno (Tennichi describes him as Osaka's "energy guy from the bench, in the lane and also on the defensive end on the break.")

Key losses: SF David Palmer, the 2006-07 league MVP, did not return to Japan. Coming off the bench for much of the season, he averaged 17 ppg and scored in double digits in the regular season's final 34 games. He topped that by playing the game of his life in the final, scoring 33. G Masashi Joho was traded to the Tokyo Apache.

Key questions: 1. Can the team avoid a championship letdown? 2. Will Nakamura be the team's go-to threat from the perimeter for the entire season? 3. Will Newton become the league's most dominant offensive center?

Quotable: "This is the first experience for me. All we are going to do is what we are going to do — play defense good and rebound a lot. So I just focus on our play right now," Tennichi said in a telephone interview, giving his thoughts on the challenges of playing in a two-conference league.

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Takamatsu Five Arrows
Coach: Motofumi Aoki
2006-07 record: 25-15

Key returning players: PG Makoto Kita, PF Reggie Warren, SG Satoshi Takeda, PG Rasheed Sparks (The Japan Times' 2006-07 MVP), SG Yu Okada (The Japan Times' top Japanese player last season), F Isaac Sojourner, SG Hiroyuki Kikuchi.

Newcomers: C George Leach (Indiana University product; previously played in the Czech Republic for Mlekarna Kunin and for the ABA's Charlotte Thunder), PG Kota Nonoguchi and SG Steve Horne (University of Montana product; previously played in the now-defunct All-American Professional Basketball League and for Karhut Kauhajoen in Finland last season), and F So Inoue.

Key losses: C Julius Ashby, a shot-blocking menace, and PG Kazuyuki Nakayama, a spark plug in the 2006-07 season's second half with ABA and USBL experience to boot.

Key questions: 1. Can this team return to the finals? 2. Will Leach give the Five Arrows the same defensive intensity that marked Ashby's performance last season? 3. How will Okada handle the new challenge of being an established player, a player opposing defenses will spend more time trying to shut down from the perimeter?

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Rizing Fukuoka
Coach: John Neumann
First season

The Rizing opened their inaugural season with the aforementioned losses. It gave Neumann an immediate indication that his team, which will use a full-court pressure defense at times, will need to come out stronger in the third quarter in coming games.

But one of this team's trademarks has already been established. Two games, two double-digit steal outings (11 in Game 1, 13 a day later). Guard Toshiyuki Chijiiwa had three in 11 minutes of playing time on Tuesday.

Neumann's club has already exhibited balanced scoring. Forward Joshua Peppers led the way with 26 points and center Jeffrey Price had 17 in the opening game. In the rematch, Price and guard Michael Gardener had 15 apiece, while Jun Nakanishi, the ex-Tokyo Apache, had 12 to lead four players in double figures.

For Neumann, now it is time to develop the team, learn which players work best with each other and strive for improvement.

"What I explain to them is if you know the system, it gives you more minutes to play," he said.

Veteran point guard Tsuyoshi Kawazura, 32, is the team's oldest player. Three players were born in 1984 (shooting guard Jun Suehiro, guard Masahiro Kanou and Chijiiwa), and two others in 1985 (Peppers and Price). Center Ndongo N'diaye hails from Senegal.

Expect the team to have no set lineup pattern.

"I try to move them around because they are athletic and play people at a lot of different positions," Neumann said.

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Oita HeatDevils
Coach: Dai Oketani
2006-07 record: 22-18

Key returning players: SG Kohei Mitomo, PG Yukinori Suzuki, F/C Justin Allen, PG Tsubasa Yonamine, F Taketo Aoki, C Chris Ayer, SG Hiroki Sato and PF Andy Ellis.

Newcomers: G Jason Braxton (Arizona State product; played in all 120 Sun Devils games during his four-year career from 2001-05).

Key losses: SF Mikey Marshall, a do-it-all player, is now wearing No. 3 for the Osaka Evessa. In this week's two-game series against the Rizing Fukuoka, he scored 23 points in the season-opener and 16 more a day later.

Key questions: 1. What will be the true impact of Marshall's departure? 2. Can Ayer, who had an up-and-down first year in Japan, reach his potential as a go-to post player? 3. Will new co-owner Vince Rawl, who lives in Texas but plans to make occasional visits to Oita, help the teams fan base increase?

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Ryukyu Golden Kings
Coach: Hernando Planells
First season

Coach Planells, who has worked as an American Basketball Association coach and NBA scout, conducted his first practice on July 23.

The team, built through bj-league tryouts, Okinawan-based players and the draft (point guard Naoto Takushi, the ex-Hosei University standout, was the No. 1 overall pick) had a stellar start to its opening campaign, going 4-1 in the seventh annual Hua Lien International Invitational Tournament in Taiwan.

On Saturday, the Golden Kings play their first regular-season game, playing host to the HeatDevils.

"I don't know how well we'll do winning or losing wise, but my guys will always give an effort," Planells said by phone from Okinawa. "I'm pleased with the way the guys are working. . .The guys are getting better. I tell everybody there is no guarantee this season."

Recent additions to the team include forwards Danny Jones (Division II Tarleton State University product; played in the Netherlands and Switzerland), Kevin Steenberge (D-II University of Richmond; Spain and CBA pro experience); forward Eric Walton (San Jose State; pro stints in France, ABA, CBA, USBL). Forward Bryan Simpson, a third-round draft pick, made a name for himself playing for the Kadena Air Base team, leading it to a Joint Military Athletic Conference title.

Five Okinawans — Takushi, fellow guards Kenya Tomori, Tomoyuki Shinzato and Shigeyuki Kinjo and forward Yoshiki Yamashiro — give the young club a local flavor.

"You can't teach experience," Planells concluded. "You have to get it on your own. I am really happy with our guys, but we are just not experienced."

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Sparks led the league in assists and steals per game a year ago. He can change the flow with his athletic ability and returns hungry to push the Five Arrows to a title.

But no team possesses a stronger one-two combination inside than Osaka in Washington and Newton. They are a threat to combine for 50 points and clear 40 rebounds every game. It's as simple as that.

Yet Ellis demonstrated last year that he's an offensive force to be reckoned with.

Can he shoulder the offensive load again for Oketani's club as it pushes for a second straight playoff berth?

When you have won a pair of titles, your comments carry weight. Thus, Tennichi's perspective served as a reminder of the growing challenges of an emerging league.

He said change of roster personnel is a key adjustment all returning teams faced before the season tipped off, but predicted Oita and Takamatsu will be strong contenders for the title.

Osaka, however, has plenty of confidence.

"We proved we can do it," Lottich said. "Somebody's got to take it (the title) from us."



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