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Saturday, Dec. 1, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

Winless Grouses shooting for turnaround


This is a tale of two expansion teams. One had a banner season in 2006-07; the other experienced growing pains from the get-go.

Ed Odeven

Not much has changed this season for the Takamatsu Five Arrows, the bj-league's playoff runnerup last spring, and the Toyama Grouses, who are 0-8 entering the teams' two-game series on Saturday night in Takamatsu.

"I am tired of the zero. The zero is old already," Grouses guard Robby Joyner was saying by phone from Toyama on Wednesday evening.

Losing triggers disgust or apathy for a sports team. Toyama has found out that it despises defeats.

And so the season's bad start — 77-74 and 100-87 home losses to the Sendai 89ers in Week One, followed by 93-88 and 83-70 setbacks against the host Niigata Albirex BB a week later, 87-73 and 80-61 defeats at Sendai in Week Three and 104-64 and 85-73 defeats against the visiting Osaka Evessa last weekend — has been difficult for coach Makoto Fukushima's players.

"He's motivated us a lot," Joyner says of Fukushima. "He reiterated that we needed to stay motivated.

"He said we need to do the things the team that is winning does to win games."

Such as?

"He says we need to do the little things, hustle plays and things like that," Joyner continues.

Center Uka Agbai offered this reaction to last weekend's disappointment against the Evessa:

"I am a player. I am gong to play regardless of a 40 point loss or a one-point loss. A loss is a loss. You have another game, so you have to think about the next game."

Through eight games, the Grouses have failed to take care of the basketball. They have more turnovers (110) than assists (107). Their free-throw shooting (64-for-119) needs to improve as well if they expect to be become a winner.

The Grouses began the season in a rebuilding mode, a get-acclimated mode. That's what happens when a team's roster experiences a big turnover from the previous season.

Only six players remain from last year's squad: point guard Takanori Goya, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2006 draft (essentially, he is the face of the franchise), and he is joined by forwards Kazutoshi Ohta and Seiichi Nojiri and guards Satoshi Yonemoto and Hirokazu Nema.

Joyner, the team's second-leading scorer, arrived in Toyama for preseason training camp on Oct. 1. He was joined by Agbai, a former Boston College player, and forward Chaz Spicer, who attended Utah State. The team has also added guards Masaya Kabaya, Shinya Ogawa and Shinya Tsujiuchi to the mix.

"I was real excited about coming to a different place," says Joyner, an ex-University of North Carolina-Asheville player who was employed by the Shanghai Sharks last season.

Frontcourt star Jerod Ward, Toyama's leading scorer last season with a stellar 23.7 points per game, small forward Nate James and guard Nile Murry did not return. Ward is now playing in Shanghai.

"I didn't want to go back to China because the season is shorter this year because of the Olympics," Joyner says.

So he's there in Toyama, trying to help create a winning foundation.

Injuries, though, have slowed the team's progress. The 201-cm Spicer has missed five consecutive games due to a pulled muscle in his back, according to Joyner.

And it's created mismatches for Toyama.

"I'm a guard and I have been having to guard big guys, and that is something new to me," Joyner admits.

"We've struggled out of the box just because we were a lot smaller than a lot of teams."

Help is on the way. The team announced the signing of two American players, center Gerald Cannon and power forward Jamar Brown, on Friday.

"The team is forming together pretty well now," says Agbai, who prides himself on being a leader on and off the court.

But, he realized, patience was needed when the season started.

"I could tell the team wasn't really finalized," the soft-spoken Agbai says.

So now it's the time for Toyama to begin a second chapter to its 2007-08 season.

"With the additions we've made and the guys we already have, the team will start to win some games," Agbai tells me.

A big test awaits Toyama this weekend. The 6-2 Five Arrows have a well-balanced team, led by veteran point guard Rasheed Sparks, The Japan Times' 2006-07 bj-league MVP, power forward Reggie Warren, sharpshooter Yu Okada and a cast of productive role players.

"We are a little undersized," Joyner says, "so everybody has to rebound every time. It's going to take a team effort to rebound against those guys because they are a pretty big team."

It's too early to know if the Grouses will develop a losing tradition. But this much is certain: The franchise's long-term financial stability will depend on winning.

And in a locale without an abundance of sporting activities, Toyama's success would bring joy to the region's loyal fans.

Agbai has witnessed this fervent support in the short time he's been in Japan.

"I've been out to dinner with some fans," he says, describing them as the league's best fans. "They've given us some gifts. . . . Any time they see us they say hello."

Five Arrows supporters have showered their team with rabid support since the team joined the league — and they've experienced the thrill of victory.

Toyama boosters are waiting for the same opportunity.



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