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Friday, April 9, 2010

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BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Kings face uphill fight to retain title


Staff writer

The Ryukyu Golden Kings have faced plenty of adversity this season. Losing shooting guard Shigeyuki Kinjo and big man Jeff Newton, the league's regular-season and playoff MVP last season, for significant chunks of time, has tested the team's resilience and competitive spirit.

To complicate matters, the defending champion Golden Kings (27-17) are now missing the services of guard Masashi Obuchi and forward/center Kevin Steenberge, both of whom were injured in Sunday's rough-and-tumble series finale against the Shiga Lakestars.

Steenberge suffered a partial tear of his jaw and is expected to be sidelined for a week. The former Richmond State product won't play at home against the Rizing Fukuoka (26-18) this weekend. He's averaging 6.7 points per game, but can carry the team on offense, as evidenced by his 27-point effort on 12-for-15 shooting (six dunks) against the Oita HeatDevils on March 27.

Obuchi injured his right shoulder (acromioclavicular joint, or AC joint) and will be out of action for three weeks, according to a news release issued by the team. He joined the team after the All-Star break, stepped into the rotation immediately and put 10.1 ppg on the board in 16 games (five starts).

Newton, averaging 15.4 ppg, has missed 19 games and hasn't played since Jan. 23. He's out with a dislocated shoulder.

Kinjo, an 18.0 ppg scorer, has been out of action since late November due to a major knee injury. He's missed 32 games.

Both standouts are expected to return to the rotation by next month as the team prepares for the playoffs, said Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani.

Shiga power forward Gary Hamilton, meanwhile, was handed a two-game suspension for a flagrant foul he committed in Sunday's game. In addition, Shiga's Mikey Marshall and Ryukyu's Bryan Simpson were whistled for technical fouls.

Lakestars coach Bob Pierce described it as "one of the most physical games I've ever been a part of."

He cited a number of reasons for the above description:

• "(Shiga center) Ray (Schafer) had a staple put in the top of his head to close a cut."

• "Steenberge had a bandage on his chin where he took a shot."

• "Gary had ice bags on his thumb, his wrists, his knees and his back after the game."

• "(Lakestars shooting guard Masashi) Joho still had Bryan's hand print on his arm long after he missed a layup."

Clearly, the game figures to be a preview of what to expect in the Western Conference's heated competition to reach the Final Four and, ultimately, the title game.

Looking back on Sunday's memorable contest, Pierce summed it up this way: "Both teams have plenty of battle scars, referee horror stories, and lots of aches and pains after this one."

He added: "But the fans were treated to some classic Mikey Marshall as he out-dueled Okinawa down the stretch."

Ryukyu stays focused: Despite the loss of major talent and productivity in Newton and Kinjo and now the setbacks faced by the injuries to Obuchi and Steenberge, the Golden Kings have displayed a mental toughness and strong team chemistry all season.

"I think when you look at it from the outside looking in . . . we have talent in the import players as well as the Japanese players," said forward Anthony McHenry, a key member of last season's championship squad, in a recent telephone interview. "Yes, the talent is there. But I think if you could look a little deeper (you would see) we have high-character guys.

"There's not any turmoil here other than wins and losses."

McHenry characterized all his teammates as friends and said the organization is run by "high-character guys."

That attitude trickles down to the last man off the bench, he said.

"These guys are just as unselfish and nice off the court and it turns over on the court. I think that's one of the main things. A lot of teams have talent, but us having high-character guys and us liking each other on our team is one of the main reasons we are successful."

McHenry praised Oketani for the job he's done in holding the team together during a challenging season.

"I think we are doing a pretty good job considering we lost two big pieces of last year's championship," he said. " . . . I think coach has done a great job in giving us the confidence that we can still win no matter who we put on the court."

The Golden Kings have changed their base offense this season, switching from one that features isolation plays to one that relies on motion.

With just a month left in the regular season, McHenry has had ample time to compare the two systems, and he insists he's comfortable with the new one.

"With this system, I think we utilize our weapons more so this year than last year," he said.

While Kinjo has been working his way back into playing shape following knee surgery, Yosuke Sugawara has seen extended playing time at shooting guard, giving the team aggressive defense and 9.4 ppg. His confidence level has risen, too, according to McHenry.

"He's handled it really well," McHenry said of Sugawara, "and he's only gotten better every game this year. I think he's only going to keep improving with the minutes he's going to get."

With eight games left in the regular season, Ryukyu's playoff spot — and its West rivals' postseason fate — has yet to be determined. And that magnifies the importance of every game.

"It's going to be a real dogfight," McHenry said.

In a recent wide-ranging interview, Oketani said the team has focused on accentuating the positives during Kinjo and Newton's absence.

"Other players have stepped up," he said, citing center George Leach (15.1 ppg), high-flying forward Simpson (9.2 ppg) and point guard Tsubasa Yonamine (7.9), for instance. "Everyone has done their part so when Jeff comes back we will be a stronger team."

Newton's 40-point, 30-rebound regular-season game last season and a 50-point effort in the playoff semifinals against the three-time reigning champion Osaka Evessa were two Godzilla-size reminders of his special talents. So naturally there's a void when he's out of the lineup.

"No one can have Jeff's role," Oketani said. "He's a special team player."

Last summer, Oketani traveled to the United States to watch Southern California Summer Pro League games, including an opportunity to keep an eye on Obuchi, who has also played in the JBL.

Obuchi impressed Oketani during summer competition, so he wasn't shocked when the guard made an instant impact for Ryukyu.

"I realized he can play at a higher level," Oketani said. "So I wasn't surprised he can play this well."

Asked who have been the Golden Kings' most consistent all-around players, Oketani singled out McHenry and Yonamine.

He said Yonamine has demonstrated the ability to "provide good passes and good assists to everyone and everyone is happy. Everyone's comfortable with him."

McHenry has shown "he can do everything once Jeff went out," the coach observed. "He plays defense, offense, everything, he talks and is like a coach to the young players. He is coachable and he realizes what the coaches think, what I think, without me saying a word. So he is kind of like a head coach on the floor."

While the Golden Kings figure out a way to execute their offense and defense with a smaller rotation for their upcoming games, Yonamine believes the team has been well prepared for it, citing the impact of Obuchi, Sugawara and Steenberge as keys to the team's resolve.

"I believe the team has gotten more options on both ends of the floor because of their efforts or because of their presence," said Yonamine, who joined Ryukyu in the off-season.

From Day One, he's enjoyed playing alongside McHenry.

"When I was in Oita, I saw that he was a very smart player and he's very physical and was making his teammates better," Yonamine said by telephone from Okinawa. "After I joined the team, I saw the same things in him: He is willing to communicate with other teammates very well and he is a very unique guy that always jokes around, a funny guy.

"I believe he is a very reliable player. I can trust him very much when I play a game with him on the court."

Yonamine reserved judgment on his first season with Golden Kings, saying he can properly analyze his play after the season is finished. He did, however, say it's been a smooth transition.

Speaking about the way he tries to get all his teammates involved on offense, Yonamine explained that it's "my responsibility to maximize their strengths," citing talented perimeter players Sugawara and Obuchi as examples.

Upcoming games: The weekend docket also features the following series: Oita (21-23) vs. Kyoto Hannaryz (15-27), Niigata Albirex (21-21) vs. Sendai 89ers (29-13), Saitama Broncos (13-29) vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (33-9) and Osaka (26-16) vs. Shiga (24-20).

Successful stretch: The Evessa have reasserted themselves into the conversation about teams with a realistic shot at competing for a championship this season. Credit coach Kensaku Tennichi for never losing faith in his players.

Just ask two-time MVP Lynn Washington, Osaka's longtime power forward.

"Coach Ten has been great at player management," Washington told The Japan Times. "If coaches understand the players they have, then success follows. It's simple, we share the ball and get big stops when we need to.

"It's funny. Chemistry never comes when you need it, but it is right on time. We are clicking right now and it feels like years past."

Former Evessa stars Newton (Ryukyu), Marshall (Shiga) and Matt Lottich (Oita), all of whom starred on the third title team in 2007-08, have made their respective teams better.

This season, Tennichi has taken his time in molding the veteran team — it wouldn't be inaccurate to call it a team in transition — and figuring out which players work best with one another, which players most deserve to be in the rotation, especially in crunch time.

"(Hirohisa) Takada is a rookie playing like a veteran," Washington said. "He hits big shots and plays great individual and team defense. All teams need one or two Japanese players to be competitive and play well in this league."

Washington also cited the exceptional play of point guard Nile Murry this season as a key factor in Osaka's success. The former Texas Christian University player is averaging 14.2 points and 4.7 assists (No. 3 in the league).

What's more, he's a threat to bury a long-range shot or weave his way through traffic to dish off the ball to a teammate or put up a shot in the lane.

"My little brother, as I like to call him, is playing like a man on a mission right now," said Washington, the league's 10th-leading scorer (18.8 ppg). "No one can guard him and he is in his prime."

Weekly honor: Marshall is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week.

The Texas Tech product helped the Lakestars earn a statement-making series sweep against the Golden Kings.

He had 18 points, five rebounds and three steals in a 77-70 Shiga win on Saturday, followed by a 23-point, eight-rebound, five-assist, two-steal effort in the series finale, a 62-58 Lakestars triumph.

Shiga is 6-2 since Marshall joined the team in early March. He is the team's leading scorer (19.4 ppg).

Around the league: Toyama guard Brandon Thomas has started writing an online blog for asia-basket.com. His first column was posted on the Web site last week. . . . Oita (Ricky Woods, 24.8 ppg; and Mike Bell, 21.0) and Hamamatsu (Wendell White, 23.1; and William Knight, 19.5) both have two players in the league's top 10 in scoring.

Quotable: "All of the Western Conference teams are really good. I can't take anything away from them to be honest with you. (The regular-season title chase) is wide open. It's so close it's hard to say who'll win it. On any night, any team can beat any team." — Fukuoka forward Michael Parker dishes out his analysis of the Western Conference.

Closing commentary: The Hannaryz insist Kazuto Aono is the acting head coach and that David Benoit has not been fired, which goes against everything the latter has told The Japan Times during two lengthy conversations in recent days.

Having worked as a sports journalist in one medium or another since 1990, this reporter knows teams and individuals will both offer their own version of a story to the media.

The names and faces change, but this is usually how it works:

Teams want to present themselves in a positive light to the media, want to be seen as being honest (not hiding or conveniently delaying details that will emerge as facts) rather than focusing on the bottom line or other issues; whereas a departed coach, or one whose days are numbered, will often be more forthcoming and truthful.

This much is certain: More details will emerge about the expansion franchise's first lesson in crisis management.



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