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[ODDS and EVENS] Utsunomiya Brex are Competing at an Impressive Level

With 11 wins in 14 games, the Utsunomiya Brex have received quality production from their veteran nucleus. Younger players have also provided a spark.

Entering the B.League's autumn break (November 13-29), the Utsunomiya Brex have established themselves as one of the top clubs in the 24-team circuit this season.

Brex coach Norio Sassa's team has won four straight games to improve to 11-3 through Sunday, November 12. Among Eastern Conference squads, the Tochigi Prefecture-based team sits in second place, two games behind the title-chasing Alvark Tokyo (13-1, including 10 wins in a row).

The Brex won their past three games by a combined 84 points, thrashing the visiting Levanga Hokkaido 74-44 on November 8, followed by 85-60 and 80-51 road triumphs over the Toyama Grouses on November 11 and 12.

With a busy stretch to kick off December, time for rest and recuperation appears to have arrived at the opportune time for the veteran-laden Brex team. 

Consider: Of the 12 players who've appeared in Utsunomiya's games to date, eight are in their 30s and Seiji Ikaruga is 29. In addition, franchise icon Yuta Tabuse, the first Japanese to appear in an NBA game, turned 43 on October 5. Tabuse has yet to play in the 2023-24 campaign, though he is listed on the active roster.

The Brex return to competition against the Yokohama B-Corsairs (6-8) on December 2 and 3. After that, they take on the Akita Northern Happinets on December 6. And they wrap up their stretch of five games in nine days against the Kawasaki Brave Thunders (12-2) on December 9 and 10.

Utsunomiya Brex
Gavin Edwards (B.LEAGUE)

Same Game Routine Helping the Utsunomiya Brex

For Utsunomiya, continuity has helped the club achieve success in the first six weeks of the season. Specifically, Sassa has deployed the same five starters in every game, with guards Makoto Hiejima, Seiji Ikaruga, and DJ Newbill and forwards Gavin Edwards and Isaac Fotu setting the tone for the team.

Newbill, previously with the Osaka Evessa, and Edwards, who suited up for the Chiba Jets from 2017-23, are in their first seasons in a Brex uniform.

The Brex's series-closing win over the Grouses (0-14) provided a snapshot of the team's quality roster depth. Hiejima, a 33-year-old Japan national team player at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Okinawa, led the victors with 17 points. Newbill and backup guard Shinji Takashima, who is 23, added 12 points apiece. Hironori Watanabe finished with nine points. 

Utsunomiya Brex
Brex guard Seiji Ikaruga is one of the team's veteran leaders. (B.LEAGUE)

Fotu nearly notched a double–double with eight points and nine rebounds, and Ikaruga and Yusuke Endo both had seven points. Edwards contributed six rebounds.

Even though the Brex recorded a 29-point win, Sassa wasn't completely satisfied with the team's performance in the weekend finale.

"There were some good parts and some not-so-good parts, but it was important to deliver the victory," Sassa told reporters on Sunday. "So I'm glad we were able to get two wins."

Coaches are notorious for never being completely satisfied. So it's no surprise that Sassa admitted he noticed the good and the bad in the team's final game before its two-week recess.

That said, there's no denying the fact that he can't complain about the team's overall defensive performance in its first 14 games ― and back-to-back wins over the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins (who now own an 11-3 record) on October 28 and 29. 

Utsunomiya Brex
Utsunomiya's Kosuke Takeuchi guards Toyama's Eo Java Yoneyama on November 11. (B.LEAGUE)

Improved Defense on Display

It's still early in the season, and Sassa's team has 46 games remaining on the schedule. But there are encouraging signs for a team that had a 32-28 record in 2022-23.

First and foremost, the team has a point differential of +9.1. The Brex are allowing 68.3 points per game, the second-lowest average in the league (the Alvark are yielding 60.9). Combine that with a scoring average of 77.4 points per game, and Newbill, Hiejima, and company are playing efficient basketball at both ends of the court.

In the previous season, the Brex averaged 73.7 points and allowed 72.1 per game. 

Narrow victories may elevate the on-court drama, but down-to-the-wire wins (and losses) can also compound the stress of playing and coaching during the long season.

The B.League regular season concludes in May.

Utsunomiya Brex
Brex playmaker DJ Newbill is the team's leading scorer (14.9 points per game) through November 12. (B.LEAGUE)

It's just a shoe!

A Quick Look at Some Key Statistical Contributions

As noted earlier, Utsunomiya's starting lineup is one of the team's building blocks for success.

It's also noteworthy that 10 Brex players have appeared in 12 or more games. This means, of course, that most of the team's backups are also getting regular opportunities to play.

Newbill, a Penn State alum, leads the team in on-court time (27 minutes, 35 seconds a game). And he's made good use of that time, averaging 14.9 points (No 1 on the Brex), 5.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists (also No 1).

Who else has double-digit scoring averages? Fotu (12.6), Hiejima (11.6) and Edwards (10.2).

Utsunomiya Brex
Brex forward Grant Jerrett suited up for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in the 2014-15 season. (B.LEAGUE)

Veteran forward Grant Jerrett, who played his lone college season for the University of Arizona in 2012-13 before being picked by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft, is a key contributor off the bench. He's contributing 8.4 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds in about 23.5 minutes a game.

Among the key reserves and playing nearly 19 minutes a game, Endo is providing 5.9 points. He's one of the team's top outside shooters ― one of three men with 20 or more 3-pointers made (the others are Hiejima and Newbill).

American born-big man Edwards, a naturalized Japanese player, also strengthens the frontcourt as a high-energy, fundamentally sound player. He's been productive so far in his first season with the Brex, chipping in with 5.5 rebounds a game along with 22 steals and 10 blocked shots to supplement his solid scoring average.

Utsunomiya Brex
Shinji Takashima (B.LEAGUE)

Practice, Play and Improve

It doesn't matter what age you are as an athlete: Everyone benefits from practice sessions and real competition, both of which are important measuring sticks for individuals and teams.

Take Takashima, for example. In back-to-back wins over the Grouses, he scored in double digits for the first two times this season, getting 13 points in the series opener, followed by 12 the next day. Added up, he poured in those 25 points in just under 40 combined minutes in the series. And he canned 7 of 12 3-point shots versus Toyama.

Any sports psychologist will tell you that weekends like this past one are beneficial for an athlete's confidence. So you can't blame Takashima if he has an extra bounce in his step during the break.

Even so, he's focused on what he can do to get better and help the team get better.

"The bye week will help us grow as individuals, but we also want to make small adjustments to eliminate our weaknesses as a team," Takashima told reporters on November 12.

Utsunomiya Brex
Yusuke Endo has played for the Brex since the 2012-13 season. (B.LEAGUE)

On the same day, Endo, one of the unsung pillars of the team, reflected on the Brex's overall play this season.

"In the 14 games we have played so far, there have been some disappointing losses, but there have also been many games in which we played good basketball," Endo remarked. "I want to rest my body during the bye week and prepare for a good start in December."

The Utsunomiya Brex have relied on consistency to position themselves for an expected playoff run in 2024. And don't discount the importance of the one-two punch of dynamic passers Hiejima and Ikaruga, who have a combined 91 assists and 18 turnovers. 

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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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