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Friday, Aug. 31, 2012
Preseason contests signal start of league's eighth season
By ED ODEVEN
After another offseason of major changes, the bj-league is entering year eight of its curious existence.
Preseason competition will get the wheels in motion for the 21-team circuit, featuring two expansion clubs (Tokyo Cinq Reves, Gunma Crane Thunders), a squad that went 2-50 a season ago (Takamatsu Five Arrows) and a defending champion with a new head coach (Ryukyu Golden Kings, Koto Toyama), along with the championship runnerup that shifted from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference (Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix).
Next Saturday marks the return of ever-energetic bench boss Kazuo Nakamura of the Akita Northern Happinets stepping on the court to press his charges to excel. The Happinets play host to the Korean Basketball League's Wonju Dongu Promy in a two-day exhibition series.
Also on tap on Sept. 8, Toyama Grouses sideline supervisor and ex-NBA forward Bob Nash, a former Saitama Broncos coach, guides his new squad against Taiwan's Pure-Youth Construction.
On the same day, former Japan national team coach Zeljko Pavlicevic returns to the spotlight for a third season with the Shimane Susanoo Magic in their preseason opener against the Kyoto Hannaryz.
Sept. 15 will mark the debut of Tracy Williams as the Saitama Broncos' fifth head coach in as many seasons before the regular season commences. The Broncos, seven seasons of sub-.500 play in the books, will square off against the Cinq Reves.
Also, the day's action includes the Miyazaki Shining Suns, now led by longtime high school coach Junichiro Hongo, competing against a Kagoshima Prefecture select team.
Pitting four teams together, the Seiki Cup 2012 starts on Sept. 15 as Serbian Zoran Kreckovic gets his first taste of coaching the Osaka Evessa against Kyoto; Shiga vs. Hamamatsu is also on tap that day.
Coach Tadashi Hayashi's Crane Thunders play their first-ever game against the host Niigata Albirex BB, led by second-year coach Matt Garrison, on Sept. 16, and the Grouses are back in action against the Shinshu Brave Warriors, now coached by Takatoshi "Big Bashi" Ishibashi. The day's Seiki Cup slate: Kyoto vs. Hamamatsu and coach Al Westover's Lakestars vs. the Evessa.
A day later, the Seiki Cup wraps up with Hamamatsu meeting Osaka and Kyoto facing Shiga. Also, Saitama takes on visiting Tokyo, guided by Motofumi Aoki, the 2006-07 bj-league Coach of the Year, again.
In Okinawa, the retooled Golden Kings' rabid fans get their first taste of Toyama's coaching style on Sept. 18-19 in a two-game set against the visiting Happinets.
The Susanoo Magic then face their next test, the Lakestars, on Sept. 22 in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.
The two-day Tohoku Derby 2012 is slated for Sept. 22-23. Day 1 pits Dai Oketani's Iwate club vs. Tokyo and Akita vs. the Sendai 89ers, Bob Pierce coaching against his former squad, the one he led during its inaugural season (2010-11). Day 2's third-place and title-match foes will be determined by what happens on the previous day in Akita.
In other Sept. 23 exhibitions, it's Niigata vs. Saitama and Shinshu vs. Toyama.
The Five Arrows, looking to return to respectability after three stunningly horribly seasons (25-127 overall record), will try to work out the preseason kinks on Sept. 26 against visiting Shimane.
The Kanto Derby, meanwhile, is set for Sept. 29 in Tokyo's Ota Ward, with Saitama vs. the Chiba Jets, who'll play a lame-duck season in the bj-league before defecting to the re-branded JBL, and Tokyo facing fellow expansion club Gunma.
Finally, the annual bj-league/KBL championship series features Ryukyu and KGC on Sept. 29-30.
As of press time, the Oita HeatDevils, Yokohama B-Corsairs and Rizing Fukuoka had not scheduled any exhibition games against bj-league or other pro circuit teams.
The regular season tips off on Oct. 6.
Locked up: The B-Corsairs on Thursday announced big man Paul Butorac, who has suited up for Takamatsu (2011-12), Akita (2010-11) and Niigata (2009-10), will play for the team this season. Butorac is an Eastern Washington University product.
Yokohama also brought back Senegalese forward Faye Pape Mour for a second season.
The Phoenix, meanwhile, recently secured the services of three frontcourt players: 200-cm Kevin Galloway (Texas Southern product), 200-cm Darshawn McClellan (Louisiana-Lafayette) and 211-cm Elbert Fuqua (Texas-San Antonio).
89ers acquisitions: Sendai has signed four foreigners for the upcoming season:
*205-cm forward Sam Willard, who averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game as a senior at the University of Pacific in 2010-11 before suiting up for a team in the Latvian League last season;
*203-cm forward Kevin Coble, a Northwestern product and NBA Development League player for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last season;
*208-cm forward Sam Coleman, who went to Coppin State and spent last season in the Mexican League and later averaged 8.2 points in 13 games with the NBADL's Rio Grande Valley Vipers;
*198-cm forward Karron Clarke, who has been employed by pro clubs in Denmark and Egypt after completing his collegiate career at DePaul.
What's the 89ers' perspective on what Willard brings to the team?
"We're very happy to have Sam Willard joining the 89ers this season," Pierce told The Japan Times Thursday evening. "He's a highly skilled post player with a wide variety of moves, as well as a tenacious rebounder, who averaged a double-double as a senior before going over to Europe to play last season. Bob Thomason in his 25 years at Pacific has done a tremendous job developing big men, and I think Sam is another in a long list of examples."
The 89ers have high hopes for Willard to make a big impact this season.
"We wanted import players who would compliment and help bring out the best in our Japanese players, and I think we have done that," Pierce said. "Take (Takehiko Shimura) and Taku (Takuya Komoda) have continued their growth from last season, and it looks like the rest of our guys are ready to make major contributions this year as well."
Major turnover: With maximum one-year contacts, no one expects teams to look the same year after year. Imports come and go; teams are in a constant rebuilding mode.
That said, it's not necessarily a bad thing for teams to shop around and look for relative bargains.
Astute general managers and coaches can always pinpoint good players or at least take a gamble on guys who can improve their squads.
"It's always interesting at this time of year to see who gets signed, re-signed, and who moves on," one hoop insider said recently. "But rarely mentioned in the conversation are some of the outrageous requests from players and agents. I know of one player whose agent asked for almost 50 percent more than he received last season.
"Many teams are quite willing to give a 5-10 percent raise, but no one is going to pay 50 percent more for the same player. Especially now with the world economy the way it is and the glut of players on the market."
He added: "It's a buyer's market, and teams can find players of basically the same level of ability if they shop around and spend the same amount of money. There's no reason to overpay when so many players are looking for jobs.
"Combine this with the fact that many players are headaches off the court, and it's no surprise that there is a high turnover rate."
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