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Best in the B.League: Alvark and NeoPhoenix Setting the Pace

Led by second-year head coaches, the Alvark Tokyo and San-en NeoPhoenix have 24-4 records as the B.League gears up for the second half of the 60-game season.

As the B.League moves closer to the official midway point of the 2023-24 season, two teams are tied for the top record.

The Eastern Conference-leading Alvark Tokyo and Central Conference-leading San-en NeoPhoenix have 24-4 records through Sunday, January 7.

Tokyo completed a two-game sweep of the visiting Kawasaki Brave Thunders on Sunday, recording a 99-76 triumph at Yoyogi National Stadium. As a result, the Alvark extended their winning streak to four games.

On the same day, the visiting NeoPhoenix topped the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins 80-74, stretching their win streak to six.

B.League
Forward Coty Clarke is the San-en NeoPhoenix's leading scorer this season, averaging 16.9 points through January 7. (B.LEAGUE)

After the 2024 B.League All-Star Game on Sunday, January 14 at Okinawa Arena, the 60-game regular season will resume with all 24 teams in action on Wednesday, January 17.

Heading into the All-Star break, several other teams have grabbed attention for their strong performances on the court.

The Utsunomiya Brex (22-6, winners of four in a row) sit in second place in the East, followed by the Chiba Jets (15-13) and Akita Northern Happinets (14-14).

Update on the Central's Other Playoff Contenders

In the Central, the SeaHorses Mikawa (19-9, including three straight victories) are a much-improved team this season. Mikawa posted a 27-33 record in 2022-23 in longtime coach Kimikazu Suzuki's final season in charge. New bench boss Ryan Richman, who previously served as an NBA assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, has revitalized the franchise.

Mikawa earned its latest victory, 87-65 over the Ibaraki Robots, on Sunday. Established team leader Davante Gardner and 2023-24 newcomer Zach Auguste led the SeaHorses with 20 and 18 points, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Central's Sunrockers Shibuya (15-13) take a five-game win streak into the All-Star break. Shibuya hammered the visiting Levanga Hokkaido 92-61 on Sunday. Josh Hawkinson scored a team-high 24 points, Anthony Clemmons poured in 19 points and Ryan Kelly had 18 for the Sunrockers.

A Quick Look at the Playoff Picture in the West

The reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (20-8) are in first place in the West, and the Shimane Susanoo Magic (17-11) hold the second spot in the standings. With four straight defeats, the Diamond Dolphins (16-12) find themselves right behind Shimane. Also, the Hiroshima Dragonflies (15-13, including four wins in a row) have positioned themselves to make a run at a playoff berth.

In addition, keep an eye on the Saga Ballooners (15-13) and Nagasaki Velca (14-14). Both clubs have made a solid transition to the B.League first division this season after earning promotion from the second division.

B.League
San-en NeoPhoenix guard Thirdy Ravena looks to score in the first quarter against the host Nagoya Diamond Dolphins on January 6. (B.LEAGUE)

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NeoPhoenix Rise to the Top

Second-year NeoPhoenix coach Atsushi Ono presided over a team that went 23-37 in 2022-23, a season of adjustments.

Gradually, Ono's approach has helped the squad develop into a more cohesive unit. 

The veteran coach insisted that the foundation for the NeoPhoenix's success begins at practice.

"I coach them strictly when they do not have the right mindset in practice," Ono told reporters after Sunday's victory.

B.League
San-en coach Atsushi Ono in a September 2023 file photo. (B.LEAGUE)

He added, "I keep telling them that the amount of passion they put into their preparation is more important than the game and that they must practice with that mindset."

Ono then said, "I believe that we must focus on quality rather than quantity in practice, and I think that the players are gradually achieving this."

In Sunday's six-point win, power forward Yante Maten finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, leading San-en in both categories. Filipino guard Thirdy Ravena dished out a team-best seven assists and scored 13 points, matching David Dudzinski for the second-highest total on the team.

On Saturday, Ravena scored 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting in the NeoPhoenix's 92-79 win.

It was a satisfying victory for Ravena, who has increased his scoring average in each of his four seasons with the team. He averaged 9.1 points per game in 2020-21, followed by 11.4 in 2021-22 and 11.5 in 2022-23. His current scoring average: 13.3.

"I was really happy that we were able to bring our offense, which is our forte, while also adjusting well on defense," Ravena told reporters after Saturday's game.

B.League
Alvark head coach Dainius Adomaitis (center) directs his team on January 7. (B.LEAGUE)

Alvark Having Another Banner Season

The Alvark ended 2023 as the top club in the eight-team Eastern Conference. 

Second-year Lithuanian bench boss Dainius Adomaitis' club has fulfilled expectations in the first three-plus months of this season after going 42-18 in 2022-23.

In its first contest of 2024, Tokyo claimed a 94-79 win over Kawasaki on Saturday, January 6. Spaniard Sebastian Saiz led the Alvark with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Brazilian Leonardo Meindl poured in 20 points and Taiki Osakabe scored 13.

B.League
Alvark forward Leonardo Meindl in action against the Brave Thunders on January 7. (B.LEAGUE)

Kawasaki's Fazekas Injures His Left Knee

Veteran big man Nick Fazekas, Kawasaki's franchise cornerstone, sustained a medial collateral ligament injury to his left knee early in the first quarter and had to leave the game.

Fazekas missed Sunday's series finale, too. The prognosis for his return has not yet been announced by the Brave Thunders, for whom he's played since 2012. He will miss the upcoming All-Star Game due to the knee injury.

Fazekas, 38, is averaging 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists this season. 

B.League
Brave Thunders star Nick Fazekas leaves the game with a knee injury on January 6. (B.LEAGUE)

In Sunday's rematch, the significance of the 207-cm Fazekas' absence was quite apparent. The Alvark outrebounded the Brave Thunders 46-19.

Meindl topped the scoring chart for Tokyo, finishing with 19 points. Shuto Ando poured in 16 and Saiz and Ryan Rossiter had 10 apiece. Rossiter added 12 rebounds and five assists, sharing the team lead with Kai Toews in the latter category.

Yuma Fujii had 20 points for Kawasaki, which dropped to 17-11.

Insights from the Alvark

After Sunday's win, Ando said he was delighted that the team extended its winning streak, doing so before more than 9,500 spectators.

Speaking at Yoyogi National Stadium, Ando described the large crowd as people "who painted the venue bright red and created an atmosphere."

He added, "I'm grateful to be able to play basketball like this right now, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."

Meindl was equally upbeat after the series finale.

"I'm glad we were able to start 2024 with consecutive wins yesterday and today," Meindl said, "[and] I want to continue playing well. The cheering from this arena is what motivates us. Thank you for your enthusiastic support yesterday and today."

'Defensive Intensity Did Not Drop'

Providing his analysis of the weekend games, Adomaitis credited his players' effort on defense as a vital factor in the outcome on both days.

"In these two big games against Kawasaki, our defensive intensity did not drop, and we were able to play our own defense for long periods of time, which I feel led to two consecutive wins," the Alvark coach said. "I also believe that the energetic play of our players, as well as the support of our fans, made it possible for us to win again."

B.League
Alvark teammates Shuto Ando (left) and Leonardo Meindl defend Brave Thunders guard Yuma Fujii in the B.League series finale. (B.LEAGUE)

Determination to Overcome Obstacles and Win Games

On Sunday, Kawasaki took a 25-24 lead into the second quarter. 

Fujii had a fantastic first quarter, scoring 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting, including 5-for-5 on 3-point attempts. He had three points and only four more shots the rest of the game. 

Tokyo's commanding presence in the low post helped the hosts pull away. It started in the second quarter as the Alvark outscored the visitors 28-13 to take a 14-point lead into halftime.

One day after Fazekas' injury, Brave Thunders guard Ryusei Shinoyama acknowledged the challenge of playing without the veteran star.

"We put aside for the moment the fact that we were losing possession and positioning in rebounding and physical battles, and entered the game with the goal of winning the game," Shinoyama told reporters.

His post-game analysis continued: "We started the game with a good rhythm in the first half after Fujii's shots hit the mark. And we managed to stay with them in the rebounding battle. But the fact that we had fewer players in absolute numbers had an effect like a body blow."

After reviewing film of Sunday's game, the team's focus will be clear, according to Shinoyama.

"We will sort out what we were able to do, what was unavoidable and what we need to reflect on. And we will all sort it out and move on to the next game," he said.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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