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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — It’s one thing to be the “forgotten team,” as the Kadena Falcons were a year ago. It’s quite another, they say, to walk around with big bull’s-eyes on their backs.

That’s the challenge the Falcons face as they prepare to defend their championship in the 13th Martin Luther King Pacificwide basketball tournament, which starts Thursday at the Foster Field House at nearby Camp Foster.

“We’re planning on that,” said guard Thomas Jackson, last year’s tournament MVP for a team that wasn’t expected to win the title. “We’re just going in the same way we did last year. No difference.”

“It’s kind of scary, and it’s kind of fun to know that everybody worked to improve to try to beat your team,” said Kadena coach Kevel Ellies, assistant to All-Tournament coach Ed Gadson last year. “Now, we have to go out and prove that we’re still the better team.”

The Okinawa Queens face a similar challenge. The defending women’s champion, led by tournament MVP Trancye Foster, will battle six women’s squads, including former five-time champion Yongsan of Korea and the Andersen Bombers of Guam, who won the Columbus Day preseason tournament at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

The Falcons, who pride themselves on a quick, full-court game, could have their hands full in a 17-team field in the first Pacificwide major tournament of the season.

The Okinawa Heat, comprised of remnants of dethroned three-time champion Dynasty, boast a 13-player roster with three former All-Marine players and two others who’ve attended All-Marine tryout camp. One, Taurice McMillan, just got out of an arm cast and is ready to play.

Korea will send the Yongsan Runnin’ Rebels, who were fourth last year but lead the Korea Traveling League with a 10-2 record and have captured one tournament title — December’s Koreawide Post-Level Holiday Tournament in Taegu. Yongsan is 17-2 overall.

Camp Casey will send a team of the best players from its two post-level teams, each 4-4 in the Warrior Division, including scoring machines Corey Washington, Donnell Haynes and Michael Scott.

Ellies says the Falcons have the talent to withstand the challenge. The question, he said, is chemistry, which he said is there — but “barely.”

“We’re kind of vulnerable mentally,” Ellies said. “We have the talent. But can we focus and say we can beat the teams we beat last year? Right now, we’re kind of just out there playing basketball.”

Case in point: Last Saturday’s home tune-up against Spotlight, in which Kadena led at halftime 31-25 but lost 74-70.

“That wasn’t so much of a wake-up call but a lesson,” Jackson said.

“We just have to play our game. We have a lot of new players. This isn’t the same team as last year. We have to push the ball, use our speed and quickness … take each game seriously.”

If they do that, player and coach say, the bull’s-eyes won’t matter.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Ellies said. “I can’t wait.”

Tournament facts and figures ...

13th Martin Luther King Pacificwide Open basketball tournament

Jan. 15-19

Site: Foster Field House, Camp Foster, Okinawa.

Format: Single round-robin pool play, first three days, 17 men’s teams, three pools of four teams each and one of five, seven women’s teams in one pool. Top three teams in each men’s pool and all seven women’s teams qualify for double-elimination playoffs, last two days.

Participants:

Men’s Pool A: Kadena Falcons, Youngbloods, Postal Express, Southern Comfort, Wing Warriors.Men’s Pool B: Yongsan Runnin’ Rebels (South Korea), Koza, Truth, Torii Army Knights.Men’s Pool C: Camp Casey (South Korea), Spotlight, Stunnas, Kubasaki High School Dragons.Men’s Pool D: Heat, Materiel and Readiness Battalion, Mizzfitz, Kadena High School Panthers.Women’s Pool: Andersen Bombers (Guam), Yongsan Runnin’ Rebels (South Korea); Okinawa Queens, Torii Matriarchs, Kadena Falcons, Kadena High School Panthers, Kubasaki High School Dragons.

Defending champions: Men, Kadena Falcons; women, Okinawa Queens.

Returning All-Tournament players: Men, Thomas Jackson (MVP), Kadena; women, Trancye Foster (MVP), Robin Szilagyi, Okinawa Queens, Theresa Gittens, Kadena High.

Schedule of events: Pool play games from 6 p.m. to midnight Thursday and Friday and 9 a.m. until conclusion Saturday. Three-point long-distance shootout and slam dunk competitions Saturday evening. Playoffs to begin Saturday night or Sunday morning, championship game times to be determined Monday afternoon. Awards ceremony 10 minutes after last championship game.

Awards: Trophies to top four men’s and women’s teams. Individual awards, MVPs, All-Tournament coaches, six All-Tournament selections. Trophies to top two finishers in skills competitions. Team sportsmanship award to one men’s and one women’s team.

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