SHANGHAI – Two days before their first game at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Japan men’s national team members still looked relaxed, but at the same time they were certainly aware that the clock is ticking.
On Friday, the Akatsuki Five took the floor at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, the venue for them and the other three teams in Group E in the first round of the 32-nation tournament, for the first time.
The event will kick off with a Group D matchup between Serbia and Angola at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, the tourney’s first day. Japan faces Turkey at 5:30 p.m. (JST) on Sunday. The Akatsuki Five will then face the Czech Republic and the United States on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
“Since we came over here in China, we feel the rising expectations for ourselves,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after his squad’s practice, which was closed to the media. “The countdown (toward our first game) has begun. We’re aware that our first game is getting closer. And of course, our expectations for ourselves have gone up, too.”
Lamas said that his team used its practice time to prepare for its crucial first contest against Turkey, which is No. 17 in the FIBA world rankings. Japan, one of the tournament’s biggest underdogs, is ranked 48th.
One of the most important things for the players to do on this day was to get familiar with the floor, the rims and the overall atmosphere at the arena, which can seat as many as 18,000 spectators.
“We confirmed how deep the spaces are (behind the baselines),” dynamic forward Yudai Baba said. “And how the ball bounces off the floor was different (than in other gyms).”
That said, the other Group E teams will also compete in an environment that they are not accustomed to.
Memphis Grizzlies two-way signing forward Yuta Watanabe showed no anxiety about playing at the site. He thinks he can capitalize on his own experiences, having played for George Washington University and in the NBA G League and NBA.
“I’m used to playing at a big arena like this and I didn’t particularly feel anything strange playing here,” the 24-year-old said. “So I think I can play in the actual games without any problems.”
Watanabe was sidelined for about 10 days after injuring his right ankle during the team’s training camp in Nagoya earlier this month. But the 208-cm player, who participated in Japan’s warm-up games last week in Saitama, insisted that he’s now “closer to the top condition” and ready for upcoming challenges.
Other players such as Baba, who competed in the NBA Summer League last month, and Daiki Tanaka, who helped lead the Alvark Tokyo to their second consecutive B. League title in May, did not seem too excited or nervous. Well, at least not yet.
“We are finally getting in the tournament,” said Tanaka, a shooting guard who has been designated an emergency point guard by Lamas so he could play on par against the bigger 1s from other countries in the group. “We have one more day (to prepare), but we would like to get ready with our usual mind-set.”
Baba said: “We are not going to dwell our mind on what others are saying and stuff like that. We’ll just focus on what we’re supposed to do.”