Igarashi counting on World Championship to show his stuff

by Kaz Nagatsuka

The higher the goal you set, the more chances you have to achieve it.

News photo WIDTH="250" HEIGHT="360"/>Kei Igarashi, a point guard, is vying for a spot on Japan’s team for the upcoming FIBA World Championship.

Japan point guard Kei Igarashi thinks his biggest opportunity has come at the right time and the right place, and he doesn’t want to waste it.

The 2006 FIBA World Championship will be held Aug. 19-Sep. 3 throughout Japan, and Igarashi is thankful that he could be playing in it when he’s at peak as a basketball player.

“I’ve gained experience in the JBL and also in international games,” the 26-year-old Igarashi said in an interview with The Japan Times. “The World Championship is a chance for me, and I’m hoping to showcase myself there.”

Igarashi just finished his third season in the JBL, and this marks just the his second year since he has been regularly called up to play by Croatian head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic.

But he is already expected to be the leader of the team.

“Still I’m relatively young in the JBL, but on this team I’m in the middle or maybe elder,” said Igarashi, who first played for the national team a substitution of an injured veteran guard Takahiro Setsumasa in 2004. “As I got playing time, I became to feel like I needed to lead the team.”

In basketball, however, Japan has not been able to hold its own against the world. It only received a bid for the World Championship for being the host country.

Japan will play with European powerhouses Germany and Spain, as well as New Zealand, Angola and Panama for its Group B preliminary round games in Hiroshima.

The top four teams in each of four groups will advance to the final round at Saitama Super Arena.

And Japan may have to face a cruel reality that a huge gap remains between itself and other countries, a fact that only increases pressure on Igarashi.

Not only will he have to come through individually, but as a point guard he also has to lead the team the right way.

Igarashi’s clear selling point is his speed. The 180-cm guard throws off opponents’ formations with his blazing penetration.

“I’m a point guard, so I want to show my speed and then feed passes capitalizing on it,” he said. “And also I’d like to change a flow of a game when needed.”

Last July, Japan held a three-game friendly series against Australia. Igarashi scored more than 20 points in leading the team in two of the three contests, although Japan lost to the Aussies each time.

Despite his position, he will be asked to lead the Japanese platoon with his scoring ability.

But even Igarashi’s spot has not yet been guaranteed, and he has to secure one through the training camps, which will be held sporadically until August.

Next month, the team is scheduled to hold a camp in Croatia and exhibitions in Spain and Italy.

Igarashi is one of four point guards (along with Setsumasa, Kenjiro Hongo and Igarashi’s Hitachi teammate Shinsuke Kashiwagi) that are currently in contention for a spot on the team.

Igarashi foresees the complement of point guards will be cut in half on the final roster.

Among the other three, Igarashi is especially conscious of Setsumasa.

The canny Setsumasa is one of the best point guards in the nation, and led the Toshiba Brave Thunders to a championship in 2004-05 JBL season.

“Setsumasa-san’s been leading both at the JBL and the national team,” Igarashi said. “So I won’t be considered as ‘Japan’s point guard’ unless I exceed him. It is a good motivator for me.”

There are more point guards he is concerned about.

Last month, 22 players were assembled by the Japan Basketball Association and Pavlicevic at the beginning of the first training camp in Tokyo, but nearly one third of them — mainly veterans — decided to leave the team after the first meeting, because, reportedly, they disagreed with Pavlicevic’s policies of going to with younger players.

Yuta Tabuse, the first Japanese-born NBA player, and Kenichi Sako, both point guards, were among them.

Igarashi and Tabuse were born in 1980 and according to Igarashi, they occasionally go out for dinner together during offseason.

Sako, who was once thought to be the best guard in Asia, was Igarashi’s idol as he grew up playing at the same schools (Hokuriku High School and Chuo University).

“I don’t feel it is a pity, but on the other hand, I can imagine that I could’ve stepped up (by playing with them),” said Igarashi, a native of Niigata Prefecture. Although he is a well-mannered man, Igarashi has thoughts of playing overseas in the future, like Tabuse.

“Yes, I have a vague thought on playing outside the country,” Igarashi said.

But the prudent Igarashi knows it will never be an easy path.

“Before thinking about it, I’ve got to have impressive results,” he said. “Otherwise, foreign scouts won’t watch me.

“There are several who are challenging overseas, but honestly I think it is so severe.

“Myself, I believe the best way to earn the chance is to get the attention of the scouts. In that sense, with Japan hosting the World Championship, a lot of scouts will visit, so both individually and as a team, we’d like to be appealing to them.”