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Friday, March 5, 2010

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Toyama faces tough road to playoff berth


Staff writer

For the Toyama Grouses, the next 10 games could define their season.

Currently, they are the Eastern Conference's fourth-place team. But with a 13-19 record, they are closer to last place than first place.

The Grouses, guided by first-year coach Charles Johnson, begin a challenging stretch of games this weekend. All of Toyama's next five opponents have a .500 record or better entering the season's sixth month.

To begin the stretch, the Grouses play host to the Osaka Evessa (18-16) on Saturday and Sunday, and then meet the visiting Shiga Lakestars (18-18) on March 13-14. The following weekend they visit the Sendai 89ers (22-12). On March 27-28, they play host to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (28-6, including 6-0 against Toyama). On April 3-4, they travel to play the Niigata Albirex BB (17-17).

If the Grouses win at least five of their next 10 games, they will greatly improve their chances of earning a playoff spot. (The top four teams in each conference qualify for postseason play.)

Toyama has failed to qualify for the playoffs in each of its four seasons in the league. It didn't improve its chances any by letting forward Kirby Lemons, the team's top scorer (17.7 points) and rebounder (12.1 boards) go on Thursday.

The lowly Saitama Broncos wasted little time in picking up Lemons, who signed with the team later the same day.

With Lemons out of the picture, both Takeshi Mito (12.5 ppg) and Brandon Thomas (10.1) will have to step up their games.

Makoto Kato, whose 9.7 ppg, is fourth on the team, remains a quality scoring option, too. When he scores 20 or more points (his season-high output is 31), the Grouses are 4-0. But Kato has struggled with his shooting, knocking down 33 of 146 3-point shots (22.6 percent).

It's expected that Johnson will challenge Kenya Tomori, Jason Underwood and Johann Collins and others to elevate their performances during this critical stretch of games.

But if the Grouses expect to have a legitimate shot at making some noise in the playoffs, they'll need to make dramatic improvements at the free-throw line (51.4 percent to date).

Upcoming schedule: Give the league's schedule makers a pat on the back. They've received their fair share of criticism, but not this time.

Sometimes it's better to wait for something worthwhile, and we've waited until now to see the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Hamamatsu square off this season.

Their weekend showdown in Okinawa will be a possible preview of May's title game.

The Golden Kings are still the Western Conference's best team until proven otherwise in the playoffs.

The Phoenix, who have chalked up victories nearly as quickly as yokozuna Hakuho this season, are 7-3 against Western Conference foes.

The Golden Kings are 6-4 against Eastern Conference teams.

In other weekend series, it's the Saitama Broncos (11-21), losers of six straight, vs. the Takamatsu Five Arrows (11-23); the Tokyo Apache (11-21), who are technically out of last place based on the bj-league's use of point differential as a tie breaker for teams with identical records, vs. Shiga in Yokohama; the Kyoto Hannaryz (12-20) vs. Niigata; and the Rizing Fukuoka (20-14), coming off a bye week, vs. the Oita HeatDevils (16-20).

Success in Sendai: The 89ers, who have the weekend off, are 9-3 since forward Josh Peppers re-joined the team in January. He also played for Sendai last season.

Peppers made his season debut on Jan. 8, and he's averaged 17.8 ppg.

Peppers, who played college ball at the University of Central Florida, gives the 89ers a skillful scorer who is also capable of scoring a ton of points in transition.

The 89ers have won five straight games, solidifying their hold on second place in the East.

What's more, coach Honoo Hamaguchi has put reserve guard Takehiko Shimura in positions where he'll succeed.

Shimura has 93 assists and 22 turnovers and has been a spark off the bench for the 89ers.

On the move: Backup guard Daichi Matsuda, in his fifth season with Sendai, was traded to the Five Arrows this week.

In related news, Takamatsu signed veteran center/power forward Jeffrey Price, who was an All-Star last season for Oita after spending the 2007-08 season as a member of the Rizing's original team. The move reunites Price with John Neumann, his old coach in Fukuoka.

The 89ers, meanwhile, have finalized a deal to bring forward Nick DeWitz back to the club. He played for Sendai in 2007-08, earning recognition as one of the league's best all-around forwards. Last season, he sustained an injury while playing for Osaka and had his contract terminated.

The former Oregon State University standout has also played pro ball in Finland, Hungary, Turkey and Portugal.

Also this week, the Lakestars parted ways with shooting guard Bobby Nash.

A University of Hawaii product, Nash averaged 11.2 ppg in 36 games (29 starts) in his second season with the team.

League accolades: HeatDevils swingman Ricky Woods, who had 35- and 52-point games against Tokyo last weekend, is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week.

Woods' 52-point performance is the league's single-game scoring record. The headline-grabbing effort came on Sunday, when Oita defeated Tokyo 117-90 to post a series split.

Woods is the league's No. 2 scorer (24.9 ppg).

"Ricky was great and he is a scorer by nature, so some of his offense comes from his rebounding the ball and just getting out on the break," HeatDevils coach Brian Rowsom told The Japan Times, reflecting on last weekend's games. "He can get 20 points off of offensive rebounding and fast-break baskets alone, it seems, and he had both of those going Sunday, plus he shot 21 free throws.

"I hope he is on this weekend as we take on Fukuoka, which has been a nemesis for us this season."

The league also announced Evessa power forward Lynn Washington is February's MVP.

Washington averaged 20.0 points and 9.9 rebounds per game in February, helping the Evessa post a 6-2 record in the month. He has a knack for scoring clutch baskets, and he's proven time and again he wants the ball in these high-pressure moments.

The former Indiana University player missed Sunday's game against Ryukyu with a strained calf muscle sustained in the series opener. He is expected to be sidelined for three weeks, according to a press release issued by the team.

Gaining attention: Golden Kings guard Masashi Obuchi, who previously played for the JBL's Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins, has proven to be a nice addition for the defending champions.

Obuchi made his season debut on Jan. 6 and has averaged 9.9 points in eight games.



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