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Friday, Sep. 23, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Broncos, 89ers making strides at different pace


Staff writer

HANNO, Saitama Pref. — The old-fashioned scoreboard, featuring hand-turned numbers, in the far corner of toasty Hanno Civic Gymnasium displayed the following scores when it was over: Saitama 90, Sendai 51.

It was a blowout — there's no denying the facts — but, above all, Monday's preseason game for the Broncos and 89ers was an extension of the teams' work in preparation for their seventh seasons in the bj-league.

Both teams' 2010-11 seasons ended after the March 11 earthquake and both teams now have new coaches — Americans Dean Murray (Saitama) and Bob Pierce (Sendai). So this game, only three weeks before the regular season begins, was a much-needed chance for both coaches to evaluate their teams.

For Murray, whose team defeated the visiting Chiba Jets 80-61, on Saturday, preparation time has involved several weeks of practices and planning. New players, including John "Helicopter" Humphrey, John Flowers, Gabriel Hughes, and returning Broncos Kenny Satterfield, Yuki Kitamuki, Daiki Terashita, among others, have had time to adjust to Murray's system.

Two victories in three days provided a positive start for Murray's squad.

"I thought overall we played pretty well," Murray told reporters Monday after the game. "From Saturday to today, the thing that I saw improvement on was we moved the ball a lot better today. We passed the ball around more.

"We were talking about making the extra pass in preparation for this game, and we did that today. Everybody played together, that's what I liked the best today."

What else was Murray pleased about? Well, anytime a team holds its foe to under 60 points, a coach can't complain about the defense.

Murray said, "We put almost all of the preseason emphasis on playing good team defense. We played good on Saturday and even better today."

For Pierce, who guided the Akita Northern Happinets last season, Monday's setback was an important first step. In fact, the Broncos-89ersh clash actually served as Sendai's first game-type workout of the preseason.

Or as Pierce put it: "Well, obviously, that was pretty bad on our part. In our defense, that's the first time we played five-on-five. Up until yesterday, we've been playing two-on-two, three-on-three in practice. Yesterday we got a little four-on-four. Obviously, the timing on offense and defense isn't there. Our American players, Johnny Dukes and Dan (Fitzgerald), just got here, so we had to keep everything really simple."

He added: "Playing against a team that's had their guys here for at least a few weeks and has already played a preseason game and has some players like Yuki (Kitamuki) and Tera (Daiki Terashita), who have been playing here for Saitama for a while, was tough, but a good learning experience for us.

"Having had the season stopped, it's nice to be on the court no matter what the situation is and whatever the result. So we'll just keep working hard to get better before the season begins in a couple weeks."

The 89ers open the season on the road on Oct. 8 against the expansion Iwate Big Bulls. The Broncos will play their first regular-season game on Oct. 15 at home against another a first-year team, the Yokohama B-Corsairs.

Saitama won't play another official exhibition game. Sendai, on the other hand, has two more: on Saturday against the host Shinshu Brave Warriors and on Sunday against the host Niigata Albirex BB. (Also this weekend, the Ryukyu Golden Kings will take on two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in a rematch of last season's championship game. The two games will be played in Okinawa.)

Among the highlights from Monday's one-sided win, Broncos rookie forward John Flowers, who starred on West Virginia's Final Four team two seasons ago, excited the crowd with four blocked shots and four 3-point shots, as well as physical play near the basket.

As a rookie pro, Flowers appears poised to be a breakout star this season.

"We are just really excited to have John on our team," Murray said. "He brings so much energy. He's a rookie and he's real excited to be here. This is his first job (as a pro player). We've got some veterans on this team and I thought it was important for us to a young guy on our team. Although he is learning a lot from our veterans, our veterans can feed off of his energy, too."

The Broncos also demonstrated that Humphrey and Darin Satoshi Maki, longtime teammates on the Tokyo Apache (2005-09), add another element to the team's game plan at both ends of the floor, as the two appeared in sync while setting up the offense, including on a crowd-pleasing alley-oop jam from Maki to Humphrey ("Heli-co" to his Japanese fans) or working hard on defense. That familiarity is something Murray will try to exploit this season.

"I think that's an advantage for us," Murray said. "We have our Japanese players who played with Saitama quite a bit, and, of course, Darin and John know each other a lot. It can only help us.

"I want us to play together as a team — everybody," he added, "but I know those two guys know each other really well and know that I am kind of looking to use them in the second quarter like that together. I'll try to play those two as much as I can together because I know they are familiar with each other and that's going to help our team out."

The 89ers struggled mightily to score points, including 4-for-39 on 3-point shots. But first-game jitters are part of the process of preparing for the season.

"Yeah, it's frustrating. I like to win," Pierce said. "I like to see the guys play hard, and a lot of the things that I like to do, we couldn't do today. I think the players understand that a lot of the things on the court they shouldn't be proud of: they didn't play well on defense; they missed a lot of open shots; there was a lot of miscommunication. But that's to be expected; that's the first five-on-five. That's something most teams have done three or four weeks ago. We did it today in a game in front of fans.

"Nobody in their first five-on-five does it in front of fans. But that's the situation we're in. We'll get better."

On a brighter note, seldom-used 89ers forward Yoshihiro Tachibana, winner of the past two All-Star Slam Dunk Contests, had an opportunity to play major minutes, unlike his role in the past few seasons under ex-coach Honoo Hamaguchi. Tachibana's defensive energy and positioning were solid, and that was an encouraging sign for the 89ers.

"I tried to use Tachibana and Daisuke (Takaoka) as much as I could today just to kind of see what they could do in a bj-league game and obviously offensively we really struggled, but to be personally honest I think Tachibana did a good job on Satterfield, who might be one of the best players in the entire league," Pierce said.

"I thought he showed with his athletic ability that he can get out and guard some players out there. Even though it doesn't show in the box score, what Tachibana did defensively can help us in the long run."

Another surprise for the 89ers coach was the play of Flowers. It's guaranteed that Pierce and other bj-league coaches will have a different scouting report on the Saitama rookie from now on.

Listen to Pierce's insight:

"He had a monster game and that's how the game really got away.

"We have a pretty good scouting report. We have players who've played against him and the games they've played he's never made a jump shot, much less a 3-point shot, so for him to make four (3-pointers) was rather surprising. We knew he could rebound and block shots, and he really affected the game that way, but his offense from the outside was a surprise..."

Games on tap: On Friday, the Toyama Grouses play host to the Shinshu Brave Warriors, the Osaka Evessa entertain the Kyoto Hannaryz (Honoo Hamaguchi's debut as Kyoto's coach) and the Rizing Fukuoka meet the visiting Miyazaki Shining Suns. On Saturday, the Shimane Susanoo Magic play host to the Takamatsu Five Arrows.

In the weekend's premier hoops showcase, the Ryukyu Golden Kings will take on two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in a rematch of last season's championship game. The Saturday-Sunday series will be played in Okinawa.

Susanoo Magic update: Shimane coach Zeljko Pavlicevic is encouraged by the enthusiasm and hard-working attitude of the team's major offseason pickup, forward Michael Parker, the former Rizing Fukuoka star who led the bj-league in scoring the past three seasons.

"His behavior on the court is very, very good," Pavlicevic said in a Tuesday phone conversation.

For a team looking to emerge as a Final Four contender in its second season, Parker's leadership could be a key factor.

"He's 100 percent for the team," Pavlicevic noted.

In the backcourt, the Magic will need to replace the productivity and talents of Japan national team guard Takumi Ishizaki, who'll play in Germany this season. One guy isn't expected to fill the void, though.

During the interview, Pavlicevic said Koki Yabuuchi, Edward Yamamoto and Tatsuhiro Yokoo will benefit from the addition of ex-Apache guard Jumpei Nakama, who's been in the league since 2005, but will now be playing for his fourth head coach in as many seasons.

Pavlicevic said Nakama "has a very good shot ... very good accuracy."

The veteran coach's role will be to determine the best way to split minutes among the quartet, knowing that back-to-back games present opportunities to give one player a lot of playing time one day and limited action in another. He said this is an option that's good to have.

Around the league: The Gunma CraneThunders will be the expansion team's name when it enters the league for the 2012-13 season, the league announced on Thursday. In a press release issued by the league, it was explained that the geographical shape of Gunma Prefecture looks like a crane, hence the name. ...

The expansion B-Corsairs added 193-cm forward Giyoh Ngafi Shey to their roster, it was announced this week.

A native of Cameroon, Shey, 23, played two seasons at Cal State Los Angeles. He grew up in Southern California.

Quotable: "One of the things I like about the bj-league is it really forces the Japanese players to have to improve, have to get better. That's just the situation we're in and that's why I'm excited to be at Sendai. It's going to be a fun year to see these guys get better and improve as we go." — Pierce, describing the challenge he faces at Sendai this season.

Quotable, part II: "I just hope that every day people's lives can improve. That's the most important thing that each individual's lives get better every day. I hope for that the most." — Murray, responding to a question about what kind of message he'd give to Tohoku residents after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

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



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