Looking to retain its title at August’s FIBA Asia Championship for Women, the latest Japan national basketball team plans to play with more vigor and speed, partly to make up for its lack of height on the international stage.
Two point guards, Asami Yoshida and Rui Machida, are key players for “Hayabusa Japan.” The team’s goal — to once again grab the Asia Championship trophy that it earned in 2013 — would mean more than when the team won the trophy two years ago. Not just because that would be back-to-back triumphs, but also because Japan would punch its ticket for next summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Former WJBL MVP Yoshida will be asked to lead the squad as its captain. The 27-year-old was actually a little indecisive over whether she would take the captaincy when she was asked by head coach Tomohide Utsumi, because she wasn’t sure if she was the appropriate person. Yoshida wasn’t on the national squad for last year’s FIBA World Championship for Women due to a torn ACL in her left knee that she suffered during the 2013-14 WJBL season.
But in the end, Yoshida made up her mind to accept the role. She believes that the responsibility will benefit her for the remainder of her basketball career.
“I wanted to live up to Coach Utsumi’s expectations and lead this team,” Yoshida said after the first day of training camp on Wednesday at Tokyo’s National Training Center. “And I wanted to develop myself by experiencing a more responsible position.”
Yoshida, a JX-Eneos Sunflowers player, once set a future goal of playing in the WNBA, but she revised that target after a severe leg injury sidelined her for a long period.
But she has still set the bar high: playing at the Olympics.
Three years ago, Yoshida and Team Japan came one win away from booking a spot for the London Games in the final world qualifier, but the ticket slipped out of their hands in the final game against Canada.
Japan’s women have missed the last two Olympics.
“I want to go to worlds with everybody on this team,” said Yoshida, the assist leader at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. “And the Olympics has always been a dream that I’ve had since childhood.
“We had a very disappointing outcome as we failed to win a spot (in London) through the final world qualifying. So I absolutely want to make it to Rio, because it could be my last shot. I want to go to Rio and play against the players from around the world.”
Meanwhile, Machida, 22, is a player who’s trying to establish her name like Yoshida, both in the WJBL and on the national team.
Machida guided the Fujitsu Red Wave to the WJBL Finals, leading the league in assists (5.57) during the 2014-15 season. Though the Red Wave fell to Yoshida’s JX-Eneos in the series, Machida was selected to the all-league team.
Machida is not a stranger on the international stage. She played in the Under-19 World Championship in 2011 and made the all-tournament team. She was also on the bronze medal-winning national team for last year’s Asia Games, though it was more like a “B” squad (the A team played at the world championship that took place about the same time).
After the first day of training camp, however, Machida got the jitters being surrounded by other senior players on the “A” national team.
“My body was stiff with nerves,” Machida said with a bitter smile.
And her jitters got even worse being around Yoshida, a much more accomplished player who’s won championships and accolades.
But of course Machida has no intention of keeping silent on the team. Utsumi declared that his team would play more of a transition game, which presumably requires a lot of speed and movement. And that’s where the diminutive 162-cm Machida can come through.
“I don’t have size, so I’ve got to showcase myself with (my speed),” said Machida, who led Sapporo Yamanote High School to all three of the major national titles in her senior year. “I don’t want to get behind anyone in terms of speed. So hopefully, I can help the team play a faster game.”
Like everybody else, putting on a Hinomaru jersey at the Olympics is the ultimate dream for Machida.
“In myself, the Olympics has been a dream place I’ve always wanted to be in,” she said. “I’m excited that I’m getting closer to that.”
FIBA’s suspension of the Japan Basketball Association has been a big headline-grabbing topic since last November. But the women’s national squad is likely to be cleared by basketball’s world governing body to play at the Asia Championship, which will be held in Wuhan, China, starting Aug. 29.
A total of 19 players are listed on the national squad presently. It will be cut to 12 before the tournament.