Japan prepares for crucial FIBA World Cup qualifiers at Iran, Qatar

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With a significant pair of wins during the previous window of the Asian qualifiers in Toyama late last year, the Akatsuki Five got much closer to clinching a berth for this summer’s FIBA World Cup finals in China.

But Julio Lamas, the Japan men’s national team head coach, and his players won’t take anything for granted in the upcoming final two games of the preliminaries.

Japan will take on Iran on Feb. 21 and Qatar on Feb. 24, both away.

After an 0-4 start in the Asian qualifiers, which kicked off in November, 2017, Japan has won six games in a row and climbed to third place in Group F. The top three teams each in the two groups (the other is E) will automatically punch tickets to the World Cup, while the fourth-place nation with a better record will also earn a spot.

If Japan beats Iran and the Philippines (currently sitting in fourth place in Group F with a 5-5 record) falls to Kazakhstan (fifth place; 4-6 record), which will be played on the same day, Japan will secure a World Cup spot. If that does not happen, the race will be determined by the results of the Feb. 24 games.

Japan defeated both Iran and Qatar last year at home, but Lamas said that his squad would not let its guard down in the upcoming rematches, calling the opponents “two menacing countries.”

“It was nothing but pleasant that we beat them at home,” the Argentine bench boss said of Iran at the National Training Center on Tuesday. “But Iran is a very competitive team. They are going to be even more competitive at their own home.”

Iran didn’t bring big man Hamed Haddadi to its first meeting against Japan in September. But there’s speculation that the 218-cm former NBA center will be added to the roster for Iran, which is presently the second-best team in the Asian qualifiers behind Australia in terms of FIBA world rankings. Iran is No. 26; Japan is 47th.

Regardless of the sport, it’s often tougher to compete in a Middle East country as a visiting team. The Argentine bench boss is certainly aware of that yet his team has developed confidence during previous contests in the qualifiers.

“We are working on our preparation (for any possible situations),” Lamas said of competing in totally different circumstances in Tehran and Doha, adding that his squad would have enough time to get ready for those games.

Veteran inside player Joji Takeuchi said that the players would need to have short memories about their previous wins and take on the two opponents as if they are playing them for the first time.

In fact, Japan struggled in the first half in the previous matchups against Iran and Qatar. Takeuchi said that if Japan does that again, this time away, it could easily “cost the games.”

Meanwhile, Japan will likely be traveling to those countries without standouts Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe because they have obligations in the United States (Hachimura plays for Gonzaga University and Watanabe has a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies). The two donned the national team jersey in Window 4, when they helped the Akatsuki Five defeat Iran in Tokyo.

Naturalized Japanese Nick Fazekas, who missed the fourth window in September because he was recovering from ankle surgery, will be the main frontcourt presence for the squad.

Shooting guard and ace scorer Makoto Hiejima expects Fazekas, who debuted for Japan in Window 3 last summer and averaged 29.3 points and 12.0 rebounds, would be guarded heavily by opposing teams.

“They are going to try to hold Nick,” said the 28-year-old, who now plays for the B. League’s Tochigi Brex after he was released from Australia’s Brisbane Bullets last month. “That said, we, the players in the perimeter, would have to score points.”

The provisional national team began a three-day training camp on Tuesday. The Japan Basketball Association will officially announce a 24-man preliminary squad next Monday. The team will then hold another three-day training camp before the qualifiers.