TOYAMA - The Akatsuki Five were once in a miserable situation, with their chances of earning a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics seemingly fading away.
Nine months later, Japan’s men’s team has put itself in a position to legitimately reach the FIBA World Cup finals, making it likely of securing a spot at the Summer Games as the host nation.
The country has not been guaranteed a spot by FIBA, the sport’s global governing body, for the men’s competition at the Olympics.
Japan got off to a 0-4 start in the World Cup Asian Qualifiers campaign, which kicked off last November. Its fourth defeat came against Taiwan in February.
But in June, the team made a complete turnaround after acquiring the naturalized Nick Fazekas and Gonzaga University phenom Rui Hachimura for the third game window. With the power of two stars, Japan stunningly defeated highly-ranked Australia to post its first “W.”
Since then, Japan has won five in a row, improving to 5-4 after cruising 85-47 past Qatar on Friday night in Toyama.
If Japan, which currently sits in fourth place in Group F, defeats Kazakhstan, and third-place Philippines (5-4) falls to second-place Iran (6-3) on Monday night, Japan will be rise above the Gilas to third in the standings.
If both Japan and the Philippines win, the two teams will be tied with Iran at 6-4, with Japan rising to third place on the point difference tiebreaker.
The top three teams each from groups E and F will earn berths in the World Cup in China next summer, as will the best fourth-place team.
Australia, the front-runner in Group F with an 8-1 record, has already clinched a spot.
At the end of the day, however, teams aim to finish within the top three by the time the qualifiers wrap in February.
“We just want to win, and perform well,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after the team’s practice on Sunday, one day before its contest against Kazakhstan at Toyama City Gymnasium. “Kazakhstan is desperate to earn a spot, too. They are a good team and we won’t win against them unless we play a good or near-perfect game.”
The Central Asians are fifth in the group at 4-5. Japan beat them 85-70 in Almaty in September. Monday’s game will be the last home game in the preliminaries for the Akatsuki Five, which will travel to Iran and Qatar for the sixth and final window in February.
“We are closely competing with Kazakhstan in terms of our win-loss record and we may possibly be competing for (the better) fourth place spot,” Japan forward Joji Takeuchi said. “I think that tomorrow’s game will be the most important game (of qualifiers) so far.
“From the last time we played Kazakhstan away, I got the impression that they are physical in the paint and their guards have skills. That said, I don’t think it will be a game like we had against Qatar the other day. We didn’t have much time to recover, but hopefully will execute the defense that we’ve prepared against Kazakhstan.”
Players like Fazekas, Hachimura, Watanabe and Hiejima have often attracted the spotlight for their scoring ability. But captain Ryusei Shinoyama pointed out his team’s defense is what has improved the most and contributed to side’s resurgence.
“We’ve gotten better in many different aspects,” the point guard said. “But I would say we’ve improved the most defensively. Looking at our stats, we have played more games in which we’ve limited our opponent’s points, and we have been able to score easy baskets off our defensive efforts.”
Nothing is guaranteed for Japan at this point, but the team has certainly made an incredible run after the four-game losing stretch to begin the qualifiers.
Takeuchi recalled that the team was “in a dark tunnel,” and unable to see anything ahead. That changed after the historic victory over the Boomers.
“It’s led us to the five wins in a row,” Takeuchi said. “The biggest factor was the additions of those great players (like Fazekas, Hachimura and Watanabe). And (these positive results) are providing a great amount of motivation for the younger players in Japan. I believe that Japanese basketball is at a turning point right now and whether we can go to the World Cup or not is very important, so we would like to keep working hard.”