Basketball

Japanese women look forward to competing for Olympic berth at Asia Championship

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s women achieved a great feat two years ago in Thailand, winning their first Asia Championship in 43 years. With the FIBA suspension of the Japan Basketball Association close to being lifted, Japan is on track to compete in the tournament again.

But what’s at stake is a lot bigger this time: an Olympic berth.

The provisional Japan women’s national basketball team opened its first training camp of 2015 on Wednesday at the National Training Center in Tokyo’s Kita Ward in preparation for August’s FIBA Asia Championship, which also serves as the Olympic qualifier in Asia for next summer’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

Japan has not played in an Olympics since 2004, in Athens.

Hayabusa Japan is scheduled to hold six rounds of training camps before the 26th edition of the tourney in Wuhan, China. The tournament will be played between August 29 and September 5.

The winners earn a ticket to Brazil. The second- and third-place finishers advance to the final world qualifying, dates and venue are to be announced later.

The Japan team usually begins its camps earlier, but was delayed because FIBA had suspended the JBA from international activity. Although Japan has to wait until it officially gets the green light from FIBA during its Executive Committee meeting on June 18 and 19, Tokyo 2024 Task Force chairman Saburo Kawabuchi said last week the ban would be lifted and Team Japan should not have a problem participating in the Asia Championship.

FIBA will host a Central Board Meeting in Tokyo in early August, during which the JBA’s suspension is expected to be fully lifted.

“When we took the suspension, our women’s under-19 team wasn’t able to play in the under-19 world championship (this summer), and we were worried,” Japan head coach Tomohide Utsumi said. “It took away an opportunity to experience the international stage and it hurt Japanese basketball overall.

“But the task force members, led by Mr. Kawabuchi, worked really hard and we’ve finally seen a positive light. The sky is almost cleared.”

The team’s captain, Asami Yoshida, said the players have just been focusing on what they could do — playing as hard as they can on the floor and crossing their fingers that the situation would be what they wanted it to be.

“We as players have just concentrated on our basketball, believing the ban would be lifted,” said the JX-Eneos Sunflowers MVP point guard. “Now the situation is brighter and I’m excited about it.”

The 19-woman provisional team will be cut down to 12 before the Asia Championship. Inside player Ramu Tokashiki is listed on the roster, but will be absent for a while as she’s currently playing for the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. Tokashiki, the MVP of the last Asia Championship, who made her debut in the WNBA last Saturday, is scheduled to leave the Storm and join the national squad after their August 21 game.

“Tokashiki has so much talent, she’s got a world-standard talent,” said Utsumi, who went to the United States to observe Tokashiki during the WNBA preseason. “Now she’s got a place to develop her techniques and ability. I believe that’s going to help Japan a lot. She’ll be here late, but we are dependent on her.”

The FIBA suspension, meanwhile, has cast a negative light on the team’s development ahead of the Asia Championship.

The Japan team, No. 15 in the FIFA rankings, plans to go abroad to hold the fourth round of its training camp, but the ban has hindered the JBA’s search for exhibition opponents. Japan currently hasn’t found any teams to play against, and will have to wait to talk to potential opponents until after FIBA gives the OK during the Executive Committee meeting later next week.

Utsumi revealed his team will bring in Jerry Dunn as a part-time coach for the second round of its training camp (June 25-July 2). Utsumi said that the team connected with the former Penn State University men’s basketball head coach through Tom Hovasse, a former Nittany Lion who currently serves as an assistant for the national team.

Dunn, who formerly worked as an associate coach for the University of Michigan men’s basketball team and as an assistant for the NBA’s New York Knicks, will be expected to mainly teach the Japanese team defensive tactics, including zone plays.

Utsumi said that he wants Dunn, 62, to give him and his team more cards to play with through his abundant knowledge of the game.

“We’d like to make our transition game faster, and to do that, we’d like to use zone, not just man defense,” Utsumi said.