TOYAMA – Looking for a fifth straight victory in its upcoming match against Qatar in the second round of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers, the Akatsuki Five will take the court with high morale.
“I think that we are ready and feel like we want to get in the game right away,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after his team’s practice on Thursday at Toyama City Gymnasium.
The Japan-Qatar contest will tip off at 7 p.m. at the same venue on Friday.
Japan (4-4), riding a four-game winning streak in qualifiers, seeks to post a winning record for the first time since the preliminaries started last November.
The home squad is favored against Qatar, which is at the bottom of the Group F standings with a 2-6 record. But the Middle Eastern country changed its head coach this fall, when Panayiotis Yiannaras replaced Tim Lewis, who was a former Hitachi Sunrockers bench boss. So it’s a bit uncertain what Qatar’s style of play will be.
Taking that into consideration, Japan’s focus is on performing its own, best brand of ball.
“What’s important for us is to play our game in the best way we can,” said Lamas, whose team arrived in Toyama on Monday and played a tuneup game the next day. “Like in our previous games, we want to do our best limiting the main players of our opponents and play our game.”
Japan will have to cope with the absence of two exceptional youngsters in Memphis Grizzlies rookie forward Yuta Watanabe and Gonzaga University junior Rui Hachimura this window.
To fill the void, Lamas named forwards Kosuke Takeuchi, Sean Ichioka and Tenketsu Harimoto to his 12-man roster that was revealed on Thursday night.
Ichioka, a 198-cm veteran who was born to an American father and Japanese mother, made the national team for the first time in 2012, when Japan finished runner-up at the FIBA Asia Cup. Last year, the Levanga Hokkaido player did not play basketball, but concentrated on receiving treatment for his knees while also focusing on his college studies.
Takeuchi will don the national team jersey for the first time since Window 1 last fall. He will reunite with his twin brother Joji, who was already on the squad.
Naturalized citizen Nick Fazekas, an elite scorer, will be expected to carry the offensive load for Japan. The center, who missed the previous window against Kazakhstan and Iran in September, averaged 28.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the two victories (against Australia and Taiwan) in the first round.
“They are a very good team, very quick and athletic. They have an inside and outside game,” said Yiannaras, who is from Cyprus and previously coached his homeland’s national team. “And with Fazekas now, they have a little bit of experience, so it’s going to be really tough.”
Lamas stated that his team would continue to play the same type of game from the previous contests regardless of who he has on his roster. But he added that he hopes other players besides Fazekas, such as guards Makoto Hiejima and Daiki Tanaka and forward Yudai Baba, will step up and make key contributions.
“We are not going to change our game too much, (but) focusing on playing as a team,” Lamas said. “On the other hand, we would like Hiejima, Baba and Daiki Tanaka get in the paint more and using others effectively. But as our (overall) concept, we are looking to win as a team.”
Considering that point differentials could be a tiebreaker in Group F, Lamas hopes Japan can beat Qatar by a big margin and not just post a victory.
Hiejima said that the Argentine coach informed his players about this issue.
“Coach Lamas told us before (today’s) practice that we don’t just want to win it, but win it with a bigger margin, because we might need help in the point differentials (to earn a sport at the World Cup finals),” Hiejima said. “So we want to go aggressively and play intense defense from the beginning. We don’t have Rui and Yuta and are going to play around Nick, but we need other Japanese players to score.”
Japan is currently in fourth place in Group F behind Australia, Iran and the Philippines.
A total of 12 Asian teams are playing in two groups (Group E and F). The top three in each and the best fourth-place team will advance to next summer’s FIBA World Cup in China.
Baba, an athletic dunker, insisted that Japan can still play as well without Hachimura and Watanabe.
“Rui and Yuta aren’t here with us, but we would like to showcase what we’ve done in the B. League,” Baba said.
On Monday, the Akatsuki Five will face Kazakhstan (3-5 entering this window) in another World Cup qualifier in Toyama.
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