Japan eager to prove worth at FIBA Asia Championship

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s men’s national basketball team has little credibility left after racking up a series of disappointing results on the international stage in recent years.

Most recently, Japan finished the William Jones Cup in Taiwan earlier this month with a humiliating 1-6 record.

But as the FIBA Asia Championship gets under way on Thursday in Manila, “Hayabusa Japan” has not lost its confidence.

But is it just groundless optimism?

Apparently not. Head coach Kimikazu Suzuki insists that the period leading up to the Asian Championship was a trial-and-error phase for the team, which was giving a chance to a few inexperienced but talented young players.

“We tested our young players in the Jones Cup, we even started them in some games,” Suzuki said after the team’s training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Sunday. “We struggled to get wins, but did play good games. And we got to clarify our strengths and issues.

“We didn’t get beaten too badly as in last year’s tournament. So we’ve made progress as we planned.”

Team captain Ryota Sakurai was on the same wavelength as his bench boss. The veteran point guard said that the current team has performed a lot better and has been more united than in years past.

“We were certainly forced to play tough games in the Jones Cup,” Sakurai said. “But we never gave up until the final buzzer. Our results probably look bad, but we’re confident that if we correct our issues in practice, we should have no problems (in the Asia Championship).”

Team Japan also added American-born center J.R. Sakuragi during the training camp. The 36-year-old former UCLA player is expected to serve the team as a stabilizing force at both ends of the court.

Another United States-born player, Sean Hinkley, whose mother is Japanese and who was part of the national team that successfully finished runnerup in last year’s Asia Cup in Japan, said that he thought the Japanese team could “beat all these teams” in the Philippines.

“I think we have good chance to . . . make some noise,” Hinkley said. “This year, we want to change the mentality that Japan’s not strong in basketball. I think we have a chance to do that.”

Another positive is that Lebanon is out of the Asia Championship. The Mideast nation was recently suspended by FIBA because it failed to take proper steps in relation to a number of violations, which include political meddling in matches as well as legal disputes between teams and players.

Lebanon, which was originally slotted in the same preliminary group (B) as Japan, along with Hong Kong and Qatar, will not participate in the Aug. 1-11 tourney and there will be no replacement. The top three teams from each group advance from the first round, so the Group B teams have already gained automatic berths into the second round.

Lebanon currently ranks third in Asia and finished runnerup in the 2001, ’05, ’07 editions of the Asia Championship.

“The hurdle is high,” Japan shooter Keijuro “KJ” Matsui said. “But we don’t have Lebanon any more and we should be able to qualify through the second round (the top four teams from each six-team group will advance to the quarterfinals). And once you’re in the final round, you never know what’s going to happen. I think each player has a sense of an urgency (due to not having won much lately), but we’re not discouraged.”

Of course, despite what the Japanese players say, maybe there are some positives. Realistic — or you could say cynical — hoop observers would probably laugh at their chances, saying that finishing above third, which is required to punch a ticket for next year’s FIBA World Cup (formerly known as the World Championship) in Spain, may still be too high a bar for Japan’s men to overcome.

“They’ve tested these new young players and new personnel, had the disastrous results in the Jones Cup and now they are going for the third place?” one longtime Japan basketball journalist shrugged. “I mean, setting a high goal is not a bad thing, but I’m not sure if they know what they’re doing.”

Well, what the Japan team should do is just get one of those top three spots, for the first time since ’97, which would shut the mouths of the doubters.