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Friday, Dec. 23, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Western Conference squads enjoying success on road


Staff writer

If this season's first 20 games have proven anything, there's no such thing as home sweet home for the Miyazaki Shining Suns. Nor is there a home-court advantage for coach Koto Toyama's team.

News photo
Steady play: Shiga Lakestars guard Yu Okada (left), seen driving on Yokohama B-Corsairs guard Masayuki Kabaya on Dec. 16, has helped his club win six of its 10 road games. KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

Miyazaki (9-11) has lost nine of 10 games at home. But the squad is 8-2 outside of its home prefecture.

Whatever the reason, the Shining Suns are a much-improved team, going 9-5 since an 0-6 start.

Interestingly enough, success on the road is quite common for the league's Western Conference teams this season. Of the West's nine clubs, seven have winning records on the road.

Here's a quick rundown: Ryukyu (15-5 overall, 10-2 road), Osaka (13-5, 8-2), Kyoto (13-5, 6-2), Shiga (14-6, 6-4), Fukuoka (13-7, 8-2) and Shimane (12-8, 8-4).

Only four of the East's 10 teams have winning road records through Sunday.

Of course, West teams have feasted on conference foes Oita (4-16) and Takamatsu (0-20), winning 17 of 20 games at the HeatDevils and Five Arrows' home venues.

Miyazaki. a second-year franchise, is currently in seventh place, but has entered the conversation among potential playoff teams by turning things around in recent weeks, including a two-game sweep over the host Sendai 89ers last weekend.

Captain Taishiro Shimizu is one of the league's most consistent players. In addition to his scoring (listed below), the veteran guard is third in the league in minutes played (681), seventh in free-throw shooting accuracy (82.5 percent) and eighth in 3-point shooting (40.9).

Miyazaki forward/center Darryl Dora is No. 10 in rebounds (10.2 per game). Teammate Dexter Lyons, the team's leading scorer at 16.2, is sixth in steals (2.1).

Statistics alone don't pinpoint how the Shining Suns have developed into a solid team as the season has progressed. They lost five of their first six games by nine points or less. Since then, they have played seven games that were decided by single-digit margins, and are 4-3 in those games, including back-to-back wins over the Evessa (82-79 and 70-68 on Nov. 26-27) and an 89-87 triumph over Eastern Conference-leading Akita on Dec. 10.

Top Japanese scorers: Among the league's native players, Toyama's Masashi Joho is the only one to be his team's top scorer at this stage of the season.

Joho is averaging 14.6 points per game, 30th-highest output in the league.

The next 10 Japanese scorers are Shiga's Yu Okada (13.5 ppg, 40th overall), Osaka's Cohey Aoki (13.3, 42nd), Fukuoka's Akitomo Takeno (12.6, 47th), Miyazaki's Shimizu and Ryukyu's Narito Namizato (12.3, 48th), Niigata's Yuichi Ikeda (11.7, 52nd) Iwate's Makoto Sawaguchi (11.3, 56th), Shimane's Tatsuhiro Yokoo (10.2, 61st), Fukuoka's Jun Nakanishi (9.9, 66th) and Takamatsu's Masaaki Suzuki (9.7).

Solid start: Lakestars coach Alan Westover is pleased with his team's overall play this season. After winning the series opener over the Yokohama B-Corsairs last Friday, Westover addressed the team's performance to date.

"We've had some big wins and we've had some disappointing losses," Westover said. "I think we're getting better week to week as the players get more familiar with the system, and with each other — new players, new coaches. So we're probably pretty fortunate where we are.

"One thing I've learned is, every game in the bj-league is a tough game. No easy games. So we just go out there and play our best, and get over and get ready for the next one."

He added: "As a coach, I guess you're never really satisfied. You see areas where you can improve on. So it's just something like a mechanic with a car engine. You always try to fine tune things and get better at certain things."

The Lakestars have one of the league's most balanced scoring attacks. Led by Ray Nixon (17.1 ppg), Shiga has five double-digit scorers, including Josh Peppers (16.2), Dionisio Gomez (13.7), Okada and Julius Ashby (11.1).

Around the league: Asked to give an assessment of Namizato, who earned a spot on the West's All-Star team in his first season in the bj-league, one longtime hoop observer dished out the following insight:

Namizato is "the best new Japanese player in the bj-league. On talent alone might be one of the top 10, but inexperience drops him to top 20. A shooting guard in a point guard's body, trying to learn how and when to play each role."

Six of the league's top 10 passers are Japanese, a good reflection of the growing number of quality Japanese guards. Shimane's Edward Yamamoto is second overall in assists (6.0 per game), Sendai's Takehiko Shimura is fourth (5.1), Oita's Naoto Takushi and Shimizu are tied for seventh (4.5), Iwate's Yoshiaki Yamamoto is ninth (4.4) and Namizato is 10th (4.3). ...

Evessa forward Lynn Washington was handed a one-game suspension after being whistled and ejected for a flagrant foul 2 on Sunday against Akita. Washington will miss this Saturday's game against Sendai.

Did you know?: Three former bj-league players could play their first NBA regular-season game in the coming days: Golden State's Jeremy Tyler (ex-Tokyo Apache forward/center), Zach Andrews of the Los Angeles Lakers (former Niigata Albirex BB post player) and San Antonio Spurs forward Luke Zeller (ex-Shiga Lakestars standout).

Role model: Evessa guard Kevin Tyner had a breakthrough game on Sunday for the Evessa, scoring 21 points and leading the offense against the Happinets in the series finale.

Sendai coach Bob Pierce believes Tyner, a Western Oregon University product, is a good player for Japanese guards to model their games after, noting Tyner's size (183 cm) is quite similar to many of them.

"Japanese guards should be studying his game film," Pierce said Monday. "Same size as many of them. (He has) speed and quickness under control. Great use of fakes, stutter steps and change of pace. Even with the sound off, you can see him talking to his teammates, telling them where to pass, where to cut, who to pick up on defense."

On the move: Forward Reggie Okosa has been released by the Ryukyu Golden Kings, it was announced on Wednesday. The team said the Nigerian-born player is leaving the team due to a family situation.

Okosa was the team's leading scorer, averaging 15.1 points in 20 games.

Elsewhere, forward O'Neal "Trey" Mims, Sendai's leading scorer (19.3 ppg) and rebounder (10.4 rpg), has been released, the team announced Thursday. The 208-cm forward attended Angelo (Texas) State before turning pro.

Upcoming schedule: Chiba plays host to Niigata in a series that begins on Friday. On Christmas Eve, the following matchups are on the docket: Shinshu vs. Yokohama, Saitama vs. Hamamatsu, Shiga vs. Iwate, Kyoto vs. Akita, Osaka vs. Sendai, Fukuoka vs. Shimane, Oita vs. Ryukyu and Miyazaki vs. Takamatsu.

Iwate faces Saitama on Dec. 28-29, while Yokohama takes on visiting Toyama on the same dates.

Gardener gone: The Northern Happinets have released high-scoring guard Michael Gardener. He didn't play last weekend against the visiting Evessa, and Akita issued a news release stating that Gardener was cut after sustained fractured ribs. The team said he'd need a month to recover from the injury.

Some league pundits consider Gardner, who has previously played for Fukuoka, Hamamatsu and Takamatsu, one of the top five all-around guards in league history.

That said, there are a variety of opinions about the reason behind Gardener's departure from the team.

A sampling of sources' remarks:

*"Mike's ribs are fine," said one player who's been in the league since 2005. "Him and coach didn't see eye to see so ... (he was released)."

*Added one Eastern Conference insider: "(Akita coach Kazuo) Nakamura complained about him the first time around at Hamamatsu (in 2008-09). I'm surprised he tried again, not too surprised it didn't work."

*Another observer, however, told this newspaper: "Gardener has told (one player) that ribs were broken, yet Nakamura still wanted him to play."

Gardener averaged 19.4 ppg in 16 games for Akita, scoring 20 or more points nine times, including a season-high 31 on Dec. 10 against Miyazaki. The 30-year-old dished out 5.5 assists per game.

Update from Iwate: The expansion Big Bulls have won four of their last six games, sweeping Takamatsu and Iwate before losing back-to-back games to host Fukuoka last weekend.

Now, coach Vlasios Vlaikidis' club has four games in a six-day span, beginning with a trip to face Shiga (Saturday and Sunday), followed by a Wednesday-Thursday series against visiting Saitama. This busy stretch will be good for the team, the coach said, giving his charges a challenge to make adjustments and play despite fatigue or physical ailments.

"It's a very interesting league," Vlaikidis said by phone from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, on Wednesday. "There's a lot of good players, really. The level is very good."

Though the first-year franchise is 5-15 and in last place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, Vlaikidis hasn't lost sight of the team's primary goal.

"We try to do our best all the time," he said. "And at the end of the season we will see what we have to change, where, etc."

"We've had some really good moments," the coach said, referring to stretches of games, "but we need to do this for longer periods of time. We need to improve the quality of our play. This comes with time."

Vlaikidis said forward Thomas Kennedy, Iwate's leading scorer (18.6 ppg), and Shawn Malloy (13.1 ppg and the league's No. 3 rebounder at 10.9 boards per game), have been strong, consistent performers who have adapted quckly to the bj-league and life in Japan.

On the other hand, forward Sean Coleman (8.6 ppg) and forward/center Matthew Smith (1.8 ppg and more than 10 minutes in only six of his 19 games) have made less of an impact on the court.

Do the Big Bulls plan to make any roster moves?

"We will see," Vlaikidis said.

As the league's youngest player last season, rookie guard Sawaguchi came off the bench and had a mostly secondary role for the then-expansion Akita Northern Happinets under Pierce.

This season, Sawaguchi has played major minutes (526) as a key reserve. He played 593 minutes in 48 games in 2010-11 and averaged 5.3 ppg.

"His role is totally different. Here he has a main role," Vlaikidis said. "He's growing up. He's tried to accept this role as best as he can."

Like other players, Sawaguchi, now 20, will encounter ups and downs during the long 52-game season. He had consecutive 3-point games against the Rizing, but can learn from his struggles.

"I'm very satisfied with him," Vlaikidis said. "He won't always play at the same level all season, but ... he's one of the 10 best Japanese scorers in the league."

Guard Yoshiaki Yamamoto leads the team in assists and is scoring 9.6 ppg. He had a season-high 29-point output against Toyama on Nov. 6 and has scored in double digits in five of the past seven games. This has demonstrated to Vlaikidis that Yamamoto "can play good, quality basketball."

As the captain, Yamamoto, 29, is a leading figure on the team and his maturation can help him set the tone for the team's future success. Vlaikidis said he expects Yamamoto to grow in confidence and be more productive in 2012-13.

Forward Hayato Kantake, who has had nine-, 12-, 13- and seven-point efforts over the past four games, is gaining confidence as he plays in this system, the coach said.

Weekly accolade: Shimane power forward Reggie Golson, who had a triple-double in Sunday's victory over Oita, is the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week, the league announced on Wednesday.

Golson had 12 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in the series-closing, 23-point win on Sunday. He had 12 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal in a 20-point win a day earlier.

A product of Southeast Missouri State, Golson is averaging 13.7 points per game in his second season with the Susanoo Magic.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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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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