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Friday, Jan. 7, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Youth movement underway on bj-league sidelines


Staff writer

The bj-league's youth movement — essentially a cost-cutting measure for a league struggling to make money — brought in several new coaches for the 2010-11 season.

So how are these coaches faring?

Well, there's been a mixture of success and disappointment.

Let's begin with the positives. Ryan Blackwell, who celebrated his 34th birthday in December, has guided the Osaka Evessa to a Western Conference-leading 17-5 record. Only the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (20-2) have more wins.

Under 34-year-old Kazuto Aono, who stepped in for the departed David Benoit last spring in the team's inaugural season, the Kyoto Hannaryz are 12-12.

The Oita HeatDevils, who are in Tokyo to play the Apache on Thursday and Friday, arrived in the capital city with a 9-13 record under first-year boss L.J. Hepp, who is 32 years old.

The Miyazaki Shining Suns (6-16), the Takamatsu Five Arrows (6-14) and the Toyama Grouses (6-14) have two things in common: first-year coaches and the league's fewest wins.

And there's this fact, too: None of these teams has what would be considered an experienced, proven winner as head coach.

• Takamatsu's Atsushi Kanazawa turns 33 in April.

• Toyama's Kohei Eto turned 28 two days after Christmas.

• Miyazaki's Koto Toyama will be 28 on Jan. 19.

That doesn't mean, of course, that veteran coaches will automatically have greater success when they take over a team.

For instance, Zeljko Pavlicevic, a big-name winner in Europe, has his Shimane Susanoo Magic (8-14) fighting to qualify for the playoffs in their first season, but they are in seventh place in the nine-team West. A lot can change with 30 games left on their schedule.

Fellow first-year bench boss Bob Nash, who played in the NBA and spent two-plus decades on the University of Hawaii men's coaching staff, is working tirelessly to transform the Saitama Broncos (7-15) into a playoff team for the first time since the bj-league's inception.

Furthermore, Bob Pierce, the former Shiga coach and NBA scout, has done a solid job leading the first-year Akita Northern Happinets, who are 8-14 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. A playoffs appearance remains the team's primary goal in its first season.

Tough times in Toyama: It's no surprise that the Grouses face an uphill battle in their quest to make the playoffs for the first time in their history. After all, the team entered the season with four consecutive losing seasons.

This season has been equally disappointing for Toyama fans.

Not only are the Grouses one of the league's worst clubs, they are also one of the most boring squads in the 16-team circuit, featuring only a pair of double-digit scorers: forward Brian Harper (18.3, tied for seventh in the league) and John Davis (12.5).

As a team, the Grouses are doing a woeful job taking caring of the ball — 244 assists, 324 turnovers — and are averaging a league-low 72.8 points per game.

Bad teams sometimes are not terrible decision makers, though, in terms of assists and takeaways. Exhibit A: The New Jersey Nets (9-25) have racked up 614 assists against 499 turnovers through Tuesday. On the other hand, the Dallas Mavericks, one of the NBA's elite teams at 26-8, have 800 assists and 464 turnovers in the books through the same day.

To make matters worse, Toyama is a bad shooting team, converting 28.7 percent of 3-point shots (120-for-418) and 57.7 percent of free throws (247-for-428).

Grouses' bright spots: Harper will represent the club as an All-Star reserve on Jan. 23 in Osaka. He is the league's No. 9 rebounder (10.2) and 10th-leading shot-blocker (1.4). So not all news is bad news for the team's long-suffering fans.

In addition, guard Takeshi Mito remains one of the league's better Japanese scorers despite his relatively low 9.9 ppg. On a winning team with more depth and more consistency, Mito's impact would be more easily recognized.

Mito has a solid mid-range game and a creative flair, producing scoring chances out of tiny gaps the defense gives him and firing shots while coming off the screen or gliding past defenders at a frenzied but controlled pace.

Another youngster, rookie guard Katsuhiko Higashi, has joined the lineup this season, giving the Grouses solid numbers in recent games.

Higashi, a 2010 draft selection out of Kanazawa University, is third in the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (43.4 percent, or 23-for-53).

The 178-cm youngster, who turned 23 in October, has started the past six games (12 starts overall), and appears to be gaining confidence along the way.

Higashi scored a season-high 15 points on Dec. 19 against Kyoto. He flushed 5 of 6 3-pointers. On Dec. 26, he was 3-for-4 from downtown in an 11-point outing against Takamatsu.

If the Grouses are able to turn things around this season, Higashi could very well be one of their spark plugs.

But here's the big issue: Toyama is 2-8 in its past 10 games, including defeats of 21, 22, 26 and 29 points. The team's season is at the crossroads.

Looking ahead: In addition to the Tokyo-Oita series on Thursday and Friday and the Tokyo-Shimane showdown the next two days, here are other weekend matchups on the docket: Shiga vs. Niigata, Sendai vs. Fukuoka, Toyama vs. Miyazaki, Takamatsu vs. Saitama — all of which begin on Saturday.

On Sunday, the Osaka-Hamamatsu series — a matchup of first-place clubs, a rematch of last May's title (the Phoenix won, 84-56) and a possible preview of this season's title game — starts and it will be the first games of the 2010-11 campaign for the league's top teams. In addition, ex-Hamamatsu star Billy Knight, now one of the Evessa's elite-level players, will have plenty of motivation in this enticing matchup.

Oita plays host to Akita next Tuesday and Wednesday.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an e-mail to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp



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