CHANGSHA, CHINA – A win against Qatar is all that stands between Japan and an Asia championship semifinal place, and with Thursday’s winner booking a place in the Rio 2016 pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, it will be a very important day for basketball in Japan.
Qatar has had an up-and-down tournament in Changsha, having lost three games in the first two stages of the tournament. The Gulf-based squad was beaten 72-64 by Chinese Taipei 72-64 in the preliminary round, and in the second round lost to Jordan 84-73 and China 89-65.
These inconsistent performances by Qatar — a team that has not finished better than sixth in the past four Asian tournaments and is currently ranked one place below Japan — mean the quarterfinal presents an excellent opportunity for Kenji Hasegawa’s team to reach Asia’s final four for the first time since 1997.
Japan earned a meeting with Qatar by topping both Palestine and Hong Kong in the second round and in the process avoided a difficult quarterfinal against the unbeaten host team China.
Qatar finished second in its group behind China, after losing in the teams’ final second round game.
Qatar’s Greek coach, Vasileios Fragkias, sat his team’s top-scoring point guard Clinton “Trey” Johnson and center Mohd Mohamed in preparation for the quarterfinal.
Slowing Johnson’s offense will be one of the keys to beating Qatar on Thursday. The U.S.-born 196-cm point guard is averaging over 20 points per game, but shooting an inefficient 42.4 percent. He’s also shot poorly from behind the 3-point line (21.1 percent) and has struggled to involve his teammates, averaging just 3.2 assists per game, despite being Qatar’s primary ball-handler.
Johnson is going to shoot. He has taken more than a quarter of his team’s shots in his first five games. Hasegawa might try to counter Johnson with a zone defense, a ploy he has used sparingly so far, to force Qatar’s key man to move the ball, or take contested outside shots.
If Johnson is ineffective, Qatar’s second offensive option is shooting guard Saad Abdulrahman Ali, but he has also been inefficient in scoring his 11 points per game, shooting 22 of 52 in six contest.
Japan point guard Yuta Tabuse said that the team understands that shutting down Qatar’s offensive weapons is vital to Japan’s prospects of advancing.
“All our players have to move their feet (on defense) and hopefully we can play better than we have been, even if only by a little bit,” he said.
“We are realizing through each game how important it is to have each and every player fighting and that is something we will need even more in the knockout rounds.
“The key will be how hard the whole team can fight and stay focused for 40 minutes.”
Defense is important, but Japan’s quarterfinal success rides mostly on the shoulders of Joji Takeuchi.
The Japanese star leads his team’s per game totals in points (15.8), rebounds (12.2, the most in the tournament), blocked shots (0.8), field goal percentage (56.5 percent) and minutes (30.4), meaning Japan will live or die by his performance on Thursday.
Takeuchi will be faced with a Qatar frontcourt of Mohd Mohamed and Ali Saeed Erfan.
The pair isn’t exactly a defensive force, having blocked just four shots combined during the tournament. Neither is averaging more than eight rebounds per game, so Takeuchi should prove more than a handful, and could provide enough punch to push Japan into the next round.
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