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Friday, Jan. 25, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Sendai hopes to keep roll going


Staff writer

SENDAI — The Sendai 89ers have racked up 16 victories in their first 20 games. It's an impressive start, but the team faces a string of contests against the Western Conference heavyweights in the weeks to come.

The challenge starts Saturday when the 89ers play a pair of road games against the Takamatsu Five Arrows (13-7), who reached the bj-league's title game as an expansion team last season.

The 89ers, winners of six straight games, have yet to face the Osaka Evessa, the Five Arrows or the Oita HeatDevils, all playoff teams in 2006-07, this season.

"We have to prepare more about how each individual player is going to play against us," Sendai coach Honoo Hamaguchi said of this weekend's challenge in Takamatsu.

In the days before the series opener against Takamatsu, Hamaguchi has stressed the importance of continuous improvement as a necessary ingredient for his team in its quest to be a champion.

"The last six games, even though we've been winning, we always play OK in the first game, (but) not really our basketball, 89ers basketball in the first game," Hamaguchi said after Sunday's game against the Ryukyu Golden Kings.

"As a coach, I see that we are not really strong, consistent right now. We've just been winning. As a coach, I always give them the key point — what we have to do — and we still have to do this, this and this . . . and make the players think that (there's room for improvement)."

It's difficult to say who is Sendai's MVP through 20 games because there are several worthy candidates.

Forward Nick DeWitz is the team's leading scorer (21.8 points per game) and top shot-blocker (36 rejections).

Forward Ryan Blackwell is second in both scoring (18.2 ppg) and assists.

Point guard Hikaru Kusaka is No. 1 in steals (37) and makes good decisions with the basketball in his hands (99 assists, 30 turnovers).

Super sub Bobby St. Preux is the team's top 3-point shooter (43-for-94) and causes headaches for opposing defenders for this very reason: He takes the frequent visits to the foul line (81-for-105) and averages 17.5 ppg.

The 89ers exuded confidence before the season began.

"Coming into the season after we had all four of our Americans together and looking at our Japanese players, we already knew it was going to be a very good team," said St. Preux, a former Northern Kentucky University player.

But Sendai still has plenty to prove in its next 24 regular-season games.

Just ask St. Preux.

"Now we are playing against the Western teams, so now we've got to bring it a little bit more," he said. "In the bj-league, a lot of people still don't know what we can do because we've been playing a lot of East Coast teams; they are waiting to see what we can do against the West Coast teams."

One thing the 89ers have seen game after game is the productivity St. Preux will provide off the bench.

"Coming into the season, I really didn't know what to expect," St. Preux admitted. "But before our first regular-season game I was talking to coach Honoo and he said I would be coming off the bench, so I just had to be mentally focused because I've never really done that before."

THIS WEEK: The Ryukyu Golden Kings (4-16) play host to the Niigata Albirex BB (13-9) on Friday and Saturday. The other three series — Saitama Broncos (9-11) at Toyama Grouses (3-19), Rizing Fukuoka (8-12) at Tokyo Apache (11-9) and Osaka Evessa (16-4) at Oita HeatDevils (9-11) — begin on Saturday.



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