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Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Tohoku Derby highlights tipoff of sixth season


Staff writer

Finally, after weeks of anticipation, the bj-league's sixth season will tip off on Saturday.

Six games are on the docket for opening day, followed by the second game in the standard two-game series a day later.

The season's opening matchups are as follows: Akita Northern Happinets vs. Sendai 89ers, Shiga Lakestars vs. Rizing Fukuoka, Toyama Grouses vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, Saitama Broncos vs. Shimane Susanoo Magic, Osaka Evessa vs. Miyazaki Shining Suns and Ryukyu Golden Kings vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows.

The Oita HeatDevils and Kyoto Hannaryz renew their Western Conference rivalry on Monday and Tuesday in Kansai, while the Tokyo Apache and Niigata Albirex BB don't begin their seasons until Week 2.

A quick primer: The Phoenix, led by energetic, innovative 69-year-old coach Kazuo Nakamura, begin their title defense against a team that has failed to make the playoffs in each of its four seasons. . . Opening day also features the debut of three expansion teams — the Happinets, Susanoo Magic and Shining Suns. . . Three former NBA players — Kyoto guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Tokyo center Robert Swift and Saitama guard Kenny Satterfield — are on opening-day rosters. . . . Eleven of this season's 16 head coaches didn't have the same job a year ago today; what's more, seven of the West's nine bench bosses are in their first seasons in their current posts. . . . Shimane's Zeljko Pavlicevic coached Japan at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, and Tokyo's Bob Hill has guided four NBA teams during his lengthy career.

For Akita coach Bob Pierce, the season's start gives him a chance to analyze what his team is doing well and what it needs to get better at.

"Obviously, an expansion team is a work in progress, and it will probably take us several games before we start to see what kind of team we'll really be over the course of a long season," said Pierce, who guided the Lakestars in the previous two seasons.

"That said, we're feeling confident going into the opening game that we will be able to compete at a high level right away."

The Akita-Sendai series is being dubbed the "Tohoku Derby" and it will attract greater attention than many of the other opening games on Saturday. NHK will broadcast the game live in six northern Honshu prefectures, giving it a real regional showcase. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m.

Sendai, coming off a 35-17 season and a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference, is looking to reach its first championship game.

Honoo Hamaguchi, entering his sixth season at the helm, is one of only two coaches still leading one of the league's original six teams. The 89ers feature capable, unselfish backcourt players in Takehiko Shimura, Hikaru Kusaka and Kenichi Takahashi, as well as rebounding maestro Chris Holm at the pivot and forward Mike Bell, a 20-and-10 guy last season for the HeatDevils.

During media day last week in Tokyo, several players and coaches agreed that Sendai is one of the teams to keep an eye on in the East.

The 89ers are "always a well-coached team," Evessa star Lynn Washington said, echoing the sentiment of several people in the room.

Hamaguchi issued a simple, straight-forward statement about his team's basic objectives for the coming season.

"We are trying to make an aggressive team that can move fast," Hamaguchi said.

The Happinets, on the other hand, are building from scratch, but with several key elements in place that could enable them to be a playoff contender this season.

Center Paul Butorac averaged 16.0 points in 42 games for the Albirex last season. Perimeter marksman Antonio Burks scored 13.1 ppg in two seasons with Niigata. They are joined by ex-Albirex teammates Makoto Hasegawa, Akita's beloved native son, and Ryosuke Mizumachi, two veteran guards.

"Having four players who played together at Niigata last season gives us some instant experience and teamwork," Pierce noted.

Butorac has been a tone-setter for the Happinets, providing much-needed grit, energy and hustle.

"He runs the floor, rebounds well and scores around the basket," said Pierce, adding that Butorac led all Happinets with 28 points in a recent intrasquad scrimmage.

Hasegawa and forward Kazuhiro Shoji, both of whom are in their 30s, experienced success in the JBL before continuing their careers in the bj-league over the past half-decade. Now, it appears, they are quietly transitioning into the next stage of their careers.

"Makoto Hasegawa and Kazuhiro Shoji are providing lots of leadership, basically acting as assistant coaches by giving advice to the newer or younger players, and seem revitalized with their new roles on this team," Pierce said.

Akita's first-ever roster also includes the league's youngest player, 18-year-old guard Makoto Sawaguchi, a graduate of Morioka Minami High School.

Sawaguchi has the potential and the energy to be a solid player from the get-go.

"I still think Makoto Sawaguchi is going to make a big impact, and become one of the more popular players in the bj-league," the coach told The Japan Times. "He's fast and exciting. In fact, he reminds me of one of those heat-seeking missiles you see in the movies, he darts to the basket and then somehow dodges and twists to get his shot off among the big guys."

With ex-Nebraska guard Sek Henry, Mizumachi and Hasegawa in the mix to play both guard positions, the Happinets appear to have plenty of versatility to be a competitive team.

Said Hasegawa: "Since we are a new team, we want to make a team that is going to be loved by the local fans."

Fresh approach: Nakamura revealed that last season's championship gave him a sense of relief. He'll savor the memories but isn't ready to rest on his laurels.

"But since I was relieved, I can try new things," Nakamura said. "Am I afraid of losing? No, I am not."

Commissioner's thoughts: Toshimitsu Kawachi, the bj-league's commissioner, offered a few words of insight about the league's present and future plans during the league's first-ever preseason media day on Oct. 7.

"2010 will be a year that the bj-league takes another big step as the Japan Basketball Association permits the league's registrations of the teams and players under its sanction," Kawachi said. "The players are also able to be selected for the national team now. Earlier, (Shimane's Takumi) Ishizaki became the first player to be named for the national team from this league, and the fact will give courage to other players.

"Of course, our stage is not limited inside the nation but we are trying to expand it to outside of it, too. We have played the bj-league/KBL championships for the fifth year . . . We are also exchanging with the NBA and Euroleague. We would certainly like to cooperate with foreign organizations with the support of the JBA."

Making an impact: Hidemitsu Nakano, the bj-league's president, spoke passionately about the growth of the league from six teams in 2005-06 to 20 for the 2011-12 season.

"We are going to have teams in 20 different prefectures next year," Nakano said. "We hope to make the game penetrate into society."

By the numbers: There are 14 NBA Development League veterans on opening day rosters, a sign of the rising level of talent among the league's import players.

The D-League veterans are Akita's Anthony Coleman; Kyoto's Wendell White, Michael Fey and Kibwe Trim; Miyazaki's Corey Minnifield and Jackie Manuel; Niigata's Julius Ashby; Osaka's Jason Klotz; Ryukyu's Anthony McHenry; Shiga's Lamar Rice; Tokyo's Byron Eaton, Kendall Dartez and Swift; and Toyama's Brian Harper . . .

• Here's a quick review of last season's statistical leaders: Fukuoka's Michael Parker led the league in scoring (26.5 ppg) and steals (2.87); Holm was the top rebounder (14.3); Takamatsu's Michael Gardener was No. 1 in assists (7.0); Takamatsu's Antoine Broxsie was No. 1 in blocked shots (2.87); Hamamatsu's Wayne Arnold was the leading 3-point shooter (40.0 percent); Sendai's Takahashi was the best free-throw shooter (88.2 percent).

Confident coach: Oita's L.J. Hepp, a University of North Carolina graduate, believes his team has developed a strong foundation over the past several weeks during preseason workouts and off the court in team-bonding exercises, such as meals.

"I think we've had really good chemistry for five, six weeks," Hepp said in a recent phone interview. "And it's something that we are going to continue to try to cultivate and we want that to stay with us throughout the season."

The HeatDevils may struggle on the boards against bigger, stronger teams, Hepp said, citing rebounding as a possible weakness for the team early in the season.

"I'm not sure how well we are going to rebound the basketball," Hepp said. "There are certainly lineups that are going to be really good rebounding lineups and other lineups that I'll have some concern with."

Naturally, Hepp is curious to find out how the team's "going to stack up" against the league.

But he considers the team's primary focus will be establishing a new identity.

"Everything's been fresh, everybody's had a clean slate," he said, describing the players and coaching staff's collective experience as "new opportunities."

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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