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Friday, April 23, 2010

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Sendai, Hamamatsu poised for big battle


Staff writer

With three weeks left in the regular season, it's as good a time as any for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and the Sendai 89ers to renew their rivalry.

News photo
Looking ahead: JBL president Yoshifumi Ito (left), Japan Basketball Association chairman Taro Aso (center) and bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi attend a new conference on Wednesday in Tokyo. The two leagues have reached a formal agreement to proceed forward with a plan to form a proposed new league for the 2013-14 season. KYODO PHOTO

The Eastern Conference's top two teams have squared off four times this season, with Hamamatsu winning three of those contests. But the teams haven't played each other since Dec. 13.

This weekend, Sendai (32-14) plays host to the first-place Phoenix (37-9), and the teams will wrap up the regular-season portion of their schedules on May 8-9, when the 89ers visit Hamamatsu's home court.

Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura's squad beat visiting Sendai 85-80 on Oct. 31 and won the Nov. 1 rematch 87-75.

On Dec. 12, Hamamatsu edged the host 89ers 83-82. Sendai earned a 91-86 win a day later.

A quick recap: Three of the four Hamamatsu-Sendai games have been decided by five points or less this season.

And that's really all you need to know about the teams' competitive nature and the abundance of quality players on both squads.

The wild, wild West: The top five teams in the Western Conference are separated by six games in the standings.

Indeed, this means a lot can happen between now and May 9, the final day of the regular season.

The fifth-place Oita HeatDevils (23-23), for instance, can shake things up dramatically by winning their remaining six games.

The fourth-place Shiga Lakestars (26-22) bounced back from a pair of tough losses two weeks ago against the Osaka Evessa to sweep the Takamatsu Five Arrows last week.

The third-place Rizing Fukuoka (28-20) get to rest this weekend before preparing for the season's stretch run.

The second-place Ryukyu Golden Kings (29-19), despite major injury setbacks this season to stars Jeff Newton and Shigeyuki Kinjo, remain a top-level contender. A roster built to compete with any team in the league and a demanding coach in Dai Oketani give the Okinawa-based club a legitimate shot at reaching the Final Four for the second straight season.

The first-place Evessa (29-17) saw their 10-game winning streak halted last Saturday against the Rizing (an 86-82 defeat), but they returned to the victory column a day later.

In the rematch, coach Kensaku Tennichi's squad played aggressively and effectively, leading by at least 15 points after each of the three opening quarters and 81-62 after the final buzzer sounded.

On Sunday, Michael Parker had a 28-point game for Fukuoka, but the rest of the team scored a paltry 34 points. As a team, the Rizing shot 2-for-22 from 3-point range.

Upcoming schedule: This weekend's slate of games includes Shiga vs. Kyoto Hannaryz (16-30), Niigata Albirex BB (22-24) vs. Tokyo Apache (19-27), Saitama Broncos (14-32) vs. Toyama Grouses (15-31), Osaka vs. Oita and Ryukyu vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows (12-34).

Player of the Week: Phoenix All-Star William Knight maximized his playing time against the Albirex last weekend.

The former UCLA Bruin scored 24 points in 23 minutes in the series opener and added 20 points in 24 minutes the next day, helping Hamamatsu earn a sweep.

Knight is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week.

Formal meeting: JBL president Yoshifumi Ito, bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and Japan Basketball Association chairman Taro Aso, the former prime minister, were among the three organizations' bigwigs present for a Wednesday meeting in Tokyo to discuss the sport's future in Japan.

Essentially, it was a carefully orchestrated photo op.

As has been reported in previous news stories in The Japan Times, as well as an in-depth analysis in a Hoop Scoop column ("Proposed new league will have major obstacles to overcome") on Feb. 20, the leagues are in talks to create a "next-generation top league," within the next few years.

Cohey update: It's rare for Cohey Aoki to not be one of the Tokyo Apache's top scorers. That's why it almost seemed like a misprint when he had back-to-back zero-point games last weekend.

Aoki offered a succinct explanation on his blog, telling fans he was sick and that he had lost his voice. Yet he still showed up for work and made an impact in other ways against the Broncos, with three assists in the opener (a 12-point Tokyo win) and five assists and four steals in the rematch (a five-point Apache defeat).

Another worthy candidate: Shiga guard Masashi Joho, who scored 20-plus points in both games against the Five Arrows.

Nice gesture: Around 30-35 basketball boosters held a small gathering for David Benoit at a Kyoto cafe/bar last Saturday.

Benoit, who was relieved of his coaching duties with the expansion Kyoto Hannaryz earlier this month, enjoyed the camaraderie of fans from the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the Saitama Broncos, his former club before he moved on to Kyoto, and the Hannaryz.

"I didn't expect it," he said by phone from Kyoto on Wednesday evening. "It was really nice for me.

"I was really blown away by it," he added. "It was great to see everyone. . . . I'm just thankful they wanted to spend time with me that day."

Benoit repeatedly heard the words "good luck" during the event, which took place after the Kyoto-Ryukyu series opener. He said the fans offered words of encouragement to him as he looks for future opportunities to coach in Japan.

"They really want me to continue to stay here," the former NBA player said. "And I told them hopefully I'll have a chance to start over with another team."

The majority of the partygoers were Golden Kings fans, including a rabid supporter who calls himself "The Swan," Benoit said.

Benoit had a chance to speak to the fans, telling them about his NBA career and why he came to Japan: to help the sport grow at all levels. He answered questions about the growth of the bj-league and the future of the sport here.

"It just kind of makes you aware that other people are watching and paying attention," he said.

Stat of the week: Nakamura has zero technical fouls through 46 games.



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