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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

HOOP SCOOP

Iwate, Niigata coaches look to make imprint on teams


The start of a new season offers fresh optimism for every coach, player and fan. It also presents new challenges and on-the-fly adjustments that will change from week to week.

Ed Odeven

Take the expansion Iwate Big Bulls and Niigata Albirex BB, for example. Both bj-league teams are led by new coaches — Vlasios Vlaikidis for Iwate and Matt Garrison for Niigata. And both coaches will use different methods to push their players to perform at their highest level.

The Big Bulls are 0-2 after their first weekend in the league, while the Albirex are 1-1. Now both teams get back to work this week with renewed commitment toward their long-term goal: advancing to the postseason.

Garrison's team gave him a 98-75 win in his first game as a pro coach, a strong performance against the first-year Shinshu Brave Warriors on Saturday. Former UCLA forward James Keefe had a 24-point game for Niigata, while newcomer Chris Holm, the impressive force in the pivot for the Sendai 89ers over the past three seasons, pulled down 12 rebounds (he had 18 a day later). Well-traveled point guard Nile Murry ran the offense efficiently, handing out seven assists.

On Sunday, Garrison experienced his first loss at the helm, an 86-81 defeat to the Brave Warriors, whose coach Motofumi Aoki took the Takamatsu Five Arrows to the bj-league championship game in the spring of 2007 when the league had eight teams. That seems like ancient history now, what with the league at 19 teams, minus the Tokyo Apache, one of the upstart circuit's original six in 2005-06.

The Brave Warriors outscored the Albirex 24-19 in the fourth quarter in Sunday's game as ex-Niigata guard Takato Saito had 17 points and six assists, numbers that former Albirex coach Masaya Hirose certainly would've been impressed with.

Garrison, flashing an omnipresent look of determination, was a fan favorite during his days as a hard-working forward for Niigata and Takamatsu. As a coach now, that passion for the game remains his trademark, even a day after he watched his team shoot 2-for-19 from 3-point range, while Kimitake Sato had a team-high 18 points in defeat.

"Basketball is a great game," Garrison said Monday, reflecting on the weekend. "One day you're on top of a mountain and bulletproof and the next you're dead in a valley somewhere. (It's a) great game of highs and lows. I love it."

Welcome to the big show, coach. Naturally, he's heard that line before. Now, sitting on the bench as the man in charge, he knows what a 23-point, season-opening win feels like. He also quickly learns to deal with five-point losses less than 24 hours later.

Nobody expects the Albirex to go 42-10 this season. But a record above .500 would be a good place to start in the 10-team Eastern Conference, and incremental improvement each month would keep the team in a position to make a run at the Final Four.

Garrison, though, doesn't plan on settling for mediocrity. And he won't be shy about saying so.

"We should be good," he said. "We have great Japanese players and some great people on and off the court for our foreign players. I like our chances and I'm loving the coaching side of things."

Garrison's labor of love will continue on Saturday as the Albirex begin their second straight home series, this time taking on the Toyama Grouses.

For Vlaikidis, packed gyms in Morioka last weekend was a good way for the Tohoku-based franchise to usher in its inaugural season.

"The people of Morioka love basketball," he said during a Monday evening phone conversation. "I'm very happy about this." In fact, he described the setting this way: "The atmosphere was perfect."

Sunday's 74-61 loss to the Sendai 89ers (2-0) was decided in the fourth quarter. The scoreboard in those final 10 minutes told the story: Sendai 21, Iwate 10.

For three quarters, though, the Greek coach said his team played a sound game on both ends of the floor. "In the fourth quarter, we played bad, especially on offense," Vlaikidis said.

The Big Bulls have next weekend off. But the players will stay busy in preparation for their first road trip of the season, Oct. 22-23 against the Akita Northern Happinets.

Right now, Vlaikidis estimated that his team is 70 percent prepared for league competition. He cited the fact that the team's only played four games to date, including a pair of exhibition contests.

"We need games to find each other," Vlaikidis said, referring to the all-important task of developing team unity on the court.

"Every game we'll be better and better," he added.

Forward Thomas Kennedy paced the Big Bulls with 19 points on Saturday, when Sendai topped the hosts 77-58. In the series finale, guards Yoshiaki Yamamoto and Makoto Sawaguchi were the team's top scorers, finishing with 14 and 12 points, respectively.

Vlaikidis has talked about the need for all of his players to make contributions. Finding a number of go-to scorers will be one part of the new team's maturation as the season progresses.

For now, Vlaikidis subscribes to the view that "we don't have a special star on the team."

With a number of stars or without one, Iwate will find combinations that work well against certain teams and are less effective against others. That's how pro basketball operates, and that won't change overnight.

Speaking to Vlaikidis for two minutes, one will immediately recognize that he is passionate about building a solid team in Iwate.

A day after his team's second game, the veteran mentor explained his primary objective this way: "We have a lot of details to work on. ... We will work on team and individual assignments. We have to work on this."

Garrison shares the same qualities.

And that's a good thing. After all, new coaches bring new enthusiasm to the bj-league. New excitement is then passed on to the players and fans.



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