Basketball

Japan's men hopeful of earning berth for 2016 Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Basketball

After Japan’s women’s national basketball team successfully clinched an Olympic berth by winning the gold medal in the FIBA Asia Women’s Championship earlier this month, the men’s squad will be hoping for a similar result at the FIBA Asia Championship next week.

The men aren’t expected to achieve the goal as easily as the women’s team did, a reality Hayabusa Japan readily acknowledges.

So the squad has set a goal of reaching the final four at the Asia Championship, where the second, third, and fourth-place teams earn berths in next year’s final world qualifying tournament. The top three finishers in the final qualifying tourney will advance to Rio.

The gold medalist in the Asian Championship , meanwhile, will be handed an automatic berth into the 2016 Olympics, in which a total of 12 teams will compete.

Japan coach Kenji Hasegawa said the feat by the women’s team was something that should be praised, and said his team will definitely try to join them in Brazil. But the men’s side also has to face the harsh reality that it hasn’t had a podium finish in the last eight Asia Championships.

“It’s easier to say it than actually do it. It won’t be easy,” said Hasegawa, who was previously known as one of the best collegiate coaches in Japan, after the team’s practice at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Wednesday. “Our players need to know that and set a realistic goal. The reality is, we haven’t won in a long time. And you’ve got to play with the frustration and hunger on the court.

“We want to make the Olympics. But the situations between the men and women are different. It’s not easy to get on the bandwagon.”

Meanwhile, the number of spots allocated for the final world qualifying from Asia was originally set at two, but recently increased to three. So making it to the semifinals at Asia Championship in Changsha, China, would be enough to keep the Olympic dream alive, which is good news to Team Japan.

“It’s huge,” Hasegawa said. “Because you only need to win one game in the (eight-team) knockout round.”

But with his team’s three-month long training camp about to wrap up, and FIBA Asia’s flagship tournament set to get underway next Wednesday, Hasegawa has a few things to worry about, as some of the players on his 12-man squad aren’t at full strength.

A injury to Kosuke Kanamaru, Japan’s outside ace, is particularly worrisome. The Aisin SeaHorses sharpshooter hurt his right elbow during Sunday’s exhibition game against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and missed Wednesday’s practice. He’s also been hampered by a foot injury, which limited him a couple of weeks ago during the William Jones Cup in Taiwan, where Japan posted a 2-8 record.

A Japan Basketball Association official said Kanamaru should suit up in a Japan jersey for the Asia Championship, but how healthy he will be is a question mark.

Unlike the prudent Hasegawa, veteran guard Yuta Tabuse seemed to have been encouraged by the women’s gold medal feat. The 34-year-old, who plays for the Link Tochigi Brex in the NBL, said he was “inspired” by the ladies and it made him even more motivated.

“I will be playing in the Asia Championship for the first time,” Tabuse said. “I was selected to the national team at this age, and as we saw the women win the berth to the Olympics, it really made me want to go to the Olympics. And we’ve got to win in Asia to realize that.”

Japan is with Iran, Malaysia and India in Group A in the first round of the Asian Championship, and will take on Iran, which has captured three gold medals in the last four Asian Championships, on the tournament’s opening day. Hasegawa and his players consider the Iranian game a key contest.

“They’ve come up with positive outcomes. They have height and they have a player that has NBA experience,” said Tabuse, a former NBA player himself. “They are a tough opponent for sure. But if we beat them, we are going to get on a roll. So we would like to put up a fight against them.”

Japan’s other shooter, Keijuro Matsui, thinks it’s good for Japan to face the strongest opponent in the group on Day 1, because Iran might not be ready to take the best out of itself yet and it might not be prepared mentally.

“So I like that we’ll play them first,” said Matsui, a player for the NBL’s Toyota Alvark.

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