Their teams are also seeking title No. 1. Which makes this weekend's Final Four an exciting time for basketball fans of those teams and for the entire league.
A first-time champion will bring incredible joy to that team's fans and the remarkable sense of accomplishment that comes with it.
To reach this point, all four teams have made incredible sacrifices in practice, day after day, week after week. The players have embraced their coach's way of doing things. Many players have also reduced their workload this season for the benefit of their team's productivity, while others have accepted even greater responsibility than they've had in past seasons.
The Eastern Conference's Final Four representatives, Niigata and Yokohama, are the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds. They were separated by one victory during the regular season.
The West's two semifinalists -- Fukuoka and Kyoto -- are seeded second and fifth, respectively.
The Hannaryz have made up the most ground, climbed the most in the standings along the way. As reported on many occasions in my Japan Times articles, they were 0-8 to start the season. That was rock bottom, and since then the ascent has been impressive, continuous and far from surprising.
Based on their talent and experience, all four teams possess a quality mix of veterans and younger players that combined to do the following in the regular season: Niigata (36-16 record), Yokohama (35-17), Fukuoka (34-18) and Kyoto (29-23). All four of these teams had .500 or better records both at home and on the road.
Niigata's top-eight rotation features guys with a lot of experience in this league: guards Shuhei Komatsu, Nile Murry, Hirotaka Kondo, Kimitake Sato; forwards Yuichi Ikeda and Rodney Webb; and centers Taj Finger and Chris Holm. When their shots are falling, which is often the case, Komatsu, Ikeda and Sato are among the most explosive Japanese scorers in the league. Sato and Ikeda have been among the most consistent native players in the league for years now. Murry's all-around athleticism and strength have made him one of the elite guards in this league since he first suited up for the Toyama Grouses in 2006. Holm is a rebounding machine, plain and simple, but also has a deft passing touch and a solid scoring ability. Webb and Finger are versatile and fit in well in Garrison's system.
Yokohama has a potent scoring trio, its Big Three (Draelon Burns, Thomas Kennedy and captain Masayuki Kabaya), that propelled the team on offense. Burns thrives coming off the bench, a role that Geary has wisely utilized. Guards Minoru Kimura, Kenji Yamada, Seiji Kono and Satoshi Hisayama have made important contributions this season, too, while Shawn Malloy and Faye Pape Mour have shared the heavy workload in the trenches, the latter growing in confidence and effectiveness as a second-year pro.
For Fukuoka, bringing in veteran frontcourt standouts Julius Ashby, Reggie Warren and Josh Peppers quietly delivered a message to the team's fans that there was a sense of urgency for the 2012-13 season -- to win now. Bolstered by guards Akitomo Takeno, Jun Nakanishi, Satoshi Ishitani and Masahiro Kano, the Rizing have a veteran core, guys who have played a lot of minutes in this league. Nakanishi has been around since Day One. Warren and Ashby have made their mark since the second season. In addition, Peppers, one of then-bench boss John Neumann's top acquisitions, was the second-leading scorer in 2007-08, the third season, at 22.2 points per game, and has only grown as an impact-making player as his hoops IQ has risen. Guard Justin Johnson has provided a scoring spark off the bench in 38 regular-season games (6.0 ppg) since joining the club.
Signing David Palmer, league MVP in 2006-07 for the champion Osaka Evessa, gave Kyoto a proven leader with three championship rings, including last season's title with Ryukyu. A terrific pure shooter, Palmer is a better-than-average rebounder and passer and fits in perfectly with Hamaguchi's team-first style of basketball. Fellow newcomers Yu Okada, Masaharu Kataoka, Marcus Cousin, Gyno Pomare and Hayato Kantake all stepped into the spotlight and made key contributions. Jermaine Boyette, Sunao Murakami and Kyosuke Setoyama experienced the challenge of reaching the Final Four for the first time last May and were counted on to guide the team to success this season. (The 26-year-old Cousin is the one guy with NBA regular-season game experience among the participants for the Final Four. Indeed, he may be hungry to have a great showing to remind NBA talent evaluators that he's a guy they should consider offering a spot to for next season.)
All four teams have solid rosters.
What will be the deciding factors in the Final Four? Many times, a hot-shooting player or a key spurt can carry a team to the team. Or an terrific defensive effort -- locking down one big scorer, denying easy 3-point shots or in-the-paint chances -- may prove to be the No.1 key.
We shall see.