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Friday, April 16, 2010

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Rowsom's role in Oita's turnaround worthy of honors


Staff writer

Brian Rowsom deserves to be on the short list of candidates for the bj-league's coach of the year honors.

After all, he took over an Oita HeatDevils team that went 8-44 last year under Tadaharu Ogawa and has guided them to a 23-23 record entering its final bye week of the season.

Fighting for a playoff spot, the HeatDevils close out the season by playing a two-game series against the Osaka Evessa next weekend, followed by back-to-back home series against the Shiga Lakestars (May 1-2) and the Ryukyu Golden Kings (May 8-9).

All three squads are ahead of fifth-place Oita in the Western Conference standings.

"It's a great playoff race shaping up in the West," Rowsom said on Sunday after his team's weekend sweep against the Kyoto Hannaryz. "We gained two games this weekend on Shiga as they lost two.

"We need to keep winning, though. . . "

The HeatDevils have won seven of their last eight games, putting themselves in position to make a push for the playoffs.

So what have been the keys to Oita's success in recent weeks?

Rowsom credits the team's solid overall defense and its improved offense.

"We seem to be playing great team defense now and sharing the ball more on offense, getting more people involved and it's nice to see it all come together," he said, "especially at the most important time of the year."

While Ricky Woods and Mike Bell, two of the league's top-10 scorers have garnered their share of accolades this season, Oita's Japanese players have also made steady contributions, including mainstays Yukinori Suzuki and Kimitake Sato.

Or as Rowsom put it: "They are playing great defense and scoring more, too."

The HeatDevils cannot be defined only by wins and losses. The team has developed into a cohesive unit that expects to enjoy itself on and off the court during the arduous seven-month season.

"We have a fun-loving, loose bunch that I let be themselves," said Rowsom, who played three seasons in the NBA (1987-90). "I am a player's coach. That's how it usually is in the NBA, so I give my players a lot of freedom that way.

"They all play cards a lot, joke around with each other and that breeds good team chemistry. Daisuke Kimiduka is the biggest jokester on our team as he makes us all laugh at all times.

"I love him and honestly all of our guys. They have not caused me one problem all year and have improved tremendously since I first saw them back in September."

Apache leader: Year after year, All-Star guard Cohey Aoki gives the Tokyo Apache quality minutes and hits a number of big shots. And he has a knack for making his biggest shots in the fourth quarter.

Last week's Apache-Grouses series at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 provided two examples of vintage Aoki time. Aoki scored 12 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter on April 7 and followed that performance with 13 of his 23 points in the final stanza on April 8, leading Tokyo's 12-point fourth-quarter comeback.

"He is like a closer in Major League Baseball, and when the game clock is winding down, he is the last guy the opposing team would like to see on the floor," Golden Kings general manager Tatsuro Kimura said of Aoki in an interview last season.

Aoki is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week, the league announced on Tuesday.

He leads the league in free-throw shooting (87.5 percent, or 161-for-184), and could win his fourth title in five seasons. Whether or not he adds a fourth shooting title this year, it's already one of the most impressive feats in the young league's history.

Tokyo coach Motofumi Aoki (no relation) recognizes the special abilities of the talented guard, and puts him in a position to succeed, following the precedent of his predecessor, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant. In other words, the coach wants the ball in Aoki's hands with the game on the line.

Coach Aoki's game plan stipulates that if his team is leading with less than 3 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Aoki is the No. 1 option.

The goal is "to get the ball to him," the veteran coach said.

One factor in that strategy is Aoki's sensational success at the free-throw line. While other players have mixed success at the line, Aoki's calm demeanor and textbook-perfect shooting form make him a special weapon.

Throughout the team's rocky transition to new ownership, a new coaching staff and a slew of new players this season, Aoki, averaging 16.4 points per game, has been a model of consistency and a good role model for his fellow teammates.

The Apache (18-26) return to competition on Friday at Sumida City Gymnasium against the Saitama Broncos (13-31) losers of 10 straight games.

The weekend's other five series tip off on Saturday. They are: Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (35-9) vs. Niigata Albirex BB (22-22), Toyama Grouses (15-29) vs. Sendai 89ers (30-14), Kyoto Hannaryz (15-29) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings (28-18), Takamatsu Five Arrows (12-32) vs. Shiga Lakestars (24-22) and Rizing Fukuoka (27-19 vs. Osaka Evessa (28-16).

Lakestars forecast: After a pair of tough losses against the Evessa, who have won 10 straight games, Shiga returns to the court against the Five Arrows while looking to solidify its position in the standings.

Power forward Gary Hamilton is the league's leading rebounder (14.3 per game) and is No. 1 on the Lakestars in assists (152) and steals (82). He's averaging 14.0 ppg. He missed the past two games due to a suspension for a flagrant foul against Ryukyu on April 4.

Naturally, Shiga coach Bob Pierce is eager to write Hamilton's name in the lineup this weekend.

"Well, the key is having Gary Hamilton play in every game," Pierce said, sizing up his team's recipe for success.

Two weeks ago, Shiga swept the defending champion Golden Kings by a combined 11 points, but they dropped a pair of close contests against Osaka last weekend, losing the opener 81-76 in overtime and the second game 71-66.

Pierce is pleased with the team's overall effort in recent games.

"We've played some pretty good defense in our last four games," he said. "That has to continue. We're not giving up many easy baskets now, and that was a problem at times earlier in the season."

He wasn't happy, however, with the team's poor free-throw shooting in critical moments against the Evessa.

"We could have won two against Osaka over the weekend if we had shot better from the free-throw line," said Pierce, whose team was 13-for-26 at the line in the series opener and 14-for-25 in the rematch.

"Poor free throw shooting will cost you any chance at a championship (see Memphis vs. Kansas, the 2008 NCAA tournament title game). Yet we made some of those in the (Ryukyu) series, so we know we can make them."

As Pierce has stated on many occasions since shooting guard Masashi Joho joined the team just prior to the season, Shiga's ability to consistently win games will depend greatly on the impact Joho can make.

The All-Star guard was 2-for-18 from the field in a five-point performance last Saturday, but shot 9-for-23 in a 23-point outing in the series finale.

"Obviously it helps when he scores," Pierce said of Joho. "But what he is starting to realize more and more is that other parts of his game can be even more important. After our recent 77-70 win over the Golden Kings — Joho scored 10 points — he was most proud of the fact that he led the team with five assists while not committing any turnovers.

"Reducing turnovers had been one of our main themes before the game, and it was nice to see Joho buying into that. We need him to continue to focus on defense — tough matchup with (Takamatsu's) Yu Okada coming up this weekend — and the scoring part will take care of itself."

There's nothing revolutionary about Pierce's final key objective for success during the final month of the season as the team seeks to earn its first playoff appearance.

The "R" word isn't, and never will be, a secret strategy for hoop squads.

"We try to out-rebound our opponent every game," Pierce said, "but we have to continue to focus on it every game or else the tendency is to stand and watch Gary. Luke (Zeller) is a pretty rugged rebounder, having played in the Big East (at Notre Dame), and now Mikey (Marshall) gives us another guy who can grab the tough rebound."

An insider's perspective: Instead of offering a long-winded account of Hamamatsu's overwhelming success through 44 games, I wanted to simplify the subject to a few basic points.

That task begin with this question: What's made the first-place Phoenix such a dominating team this season?

A Western Conference coach offers his thoughts on the subject:

"Hamamatsu has been really good all season because they've had guys who can score," the coach said. "When you have guys like Wendell White, Billy Knight, and Masahiro Oguchi who can knock down open shot after open shot, it can be demoralizing. Now they've added Wayne Arnold (No. 1 in the league in 3-point shooting at 39.9 percent) who gives them another outside shooter. So even when you think you're playing good defense, they can get hot and score in bunches.

"Most defensive systems can match up with two outside shooters, but a team like Hamamatsu often has three (or four) on the court. So the defense (man or zone) gets stretched out and you leave someone open on the outside, or you allow them to get the ball to the basket."

Hamamatsu, it should be noted, leads the league in point differential (plus 11.9), meaning it is averaging a heck of a lot more points than it is giving up. In addition, the Phoenix have scored 100 or more points eight times.

"They play very hard, and have enough players to sub to keep players fresh or to deal with foul trouble, so that gives them a distinct advantage over teams with a thinner roster," the coach said.

"On the other hand they've also benefited from the fact that half of the East is relatively weak, with three teams (Tokyo, Toyama, and Saitama) providing lots of wins for the Phoenix," he noted.

Yes, indeed. The Phoenix are 8-0 against the fifth-place Grouses, 6-0 against the hapless sixth-place Broncos and 4-2 against the Apache.

Playoff dates: The Final Four will be held on May 22-23 at Ariake Colosseum. On the first day, the Western Conference final is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., followed by the Eastern Conference final at 7:10 p.m.

The third-place game is slated for 1 p.m. on May 23. The title match is set to begin at 4:40 p.m.

The conference semifinal series are slated for May 15-16. Look for further details in upcoming stories.

Expansion plans: March 31 was the application deadline for next season's prospective expansion franchises.

According to a league news release, 10 groups submitted applications to join the league for the 2011-12 season, and six of those applicants were accepted as official bids, meaning they will be given further review.

The prospective groups are from Chiba, Kanagawa, Nagano and Kagoshima prefectures and two unnamed applicants.

The league plans to make an announcement in August about which groups have been rewarded with an expansion franchise.

In the 2010-11 season, the Akita Northern Happinets, Shimane Susanoo Magic and Miyazaki Shining Suns will join the league as expansion clubs, raising the number of franchises to 16.

The league has stated that its goal is to have 24 teams for its 10th season in 2014-15.

Rumor mill: Bryant, who guided Tokyo to consecutive trips to the finals in 2008 and 2009, is interested in returning to the league next season. . . Word has also circulated that ex-Ryukyu bench boss Hernando Planells is interested in coming back to the league. . .

There are whispers that Five Arrows coach John Neumann, the Rizing's first coach, also appears ready to move on to another team after a difficult first season with the Shikoku-based club.



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