Japan squad set for big challenges

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The players and staff seemed relaxed. That is a good indication of their state of mind as they get into the final window of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers.

The provisional Japanese men’s national team began its final training camp on Tuesday before its departure for its remaining pair of contests against Iran and Qatar in the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers.

The squad will take off from Japan on Friday for Istanbul, where it will hold another training camp. The team will take on Iran in Tehran on Feb. 21 and face Qatar on Feb. 24 in Doha.

Japan is currently placed in the third place in Group F in the second round of the qualifiers, good enough to earn a spot for the World Cup finals in China.

“Our team is in a very good condition,” Japan coach Julio Lamas said at Tokyo’s National Training Center. “The (upcoming) games are the most important games. We are one step away (from making the World Cup). So we would like to have the best possible preparations toward the games so we won’t have any regrets.”

The Argentine bench boss said that a total of 13 players would make the cut and travel to Turkey.

Of the two games, Iran absolutely will be the more difficult foe for Japan to beat. The Asian powerhouse is said to be bringing back former NBA center Hamed Haddadi and veteran star forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, both of whom did not play in the two team’s previous game in Tokyo last September.

Lamas expected a completely different squad from Iran this time, saying his team would “have to put on a near-perfect game for us to win.”

In the September contest, Japan played with young stars Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe, but the two are playing in the United States are expected to miss the games against Iran and Qatar.

Japan’s main player Nick Fazekas, who missed the Iranian game, said that the team should be able to put pressure on the opponent with its fast-tempo game, which it did last time, even without Hachimura and Watanabe.

“We are able to do the same without Rui and Yuta,” said Fazekas, who obtained Japanese citizenship and averaged 29.3 points and 12.0 rebounds for Japan in the qualifiers. “Obviously, the team’s built up a little bit differently without those two, but I still think we are definitely good enough to win.”

Meanwhile, the Japanese players are not too worried about traveling to the Middle East and competing as visitors. In fact, Japan has played better earlier in its previous games in the qualifiers when it played away from home.

Guard Ryusei Shinoyama said that the players might have gotten worked up a little more playing before their home crowds.

With that said, the 30-year-old thinks that Japan would “be able to get in those away games with no problems.”

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