Japan’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will face a stiff challenge during the preliminary round of this summer Tokyo Games after being given a tough road during the draw for the Olympic tournaments on Tuesday.

The host country’s male squad was placed into Group C along with Spain and Argentina, the finalists of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. The final spot in the group will be filled by the winner of one of the four qualifying tournaments taking place in four nations from June 29 to July 4. The Group C qualifier will come from the tournament being held in Kaunas, Lithuania.

“We’ll be taking on the two finalists of the World Cup, and it says it all,” men’s team head coach Julio Lamas told an online news conference following the draw. “They play collectively at a high level and have players that possess individual skills. As for Spain, besides winning the gold medal at the World Cup, they’ve won medals at consecutive Olympics in the past.”

Spain, a two-time World Cup champion, and Argentina are No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in the FIBA world rankings. Japan, which was 0-5 at the 2019 World Cup and will be competing at the Olympics for the first time since the Montreal Games in 1976, is ranked 44th.

The United States, the three-time defending gold medalist and the world’s No. 1 team, is in Group A with Iran and France. The winner of one of the qualifying tournaments will round out the group.

Both the men’s and women’s competitions will feature 12 teams split into three groups and will take place at Saitama Super Arena. The top two teams from each group and the two best third-place finishers will advance to the knockout stage.

“While the global pandemic and the postponement of the Summer Olympics was not the way we had imagined to finish this four-year period called the Olympiad, FIBA is confident that we will enjoy the world’s best players performing this coming July in the capital of Japan,” FIBA Secretary-General Andreas Zagklis said during the draw ceremony, which was held online.

Lamas, an Argentine, had mixed feelings about being grouped with his home country, the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medalist.

“To be honest, it feels strange,” he said. “Emotionally, I didn’t want to play against my country. But what I’ll prioritize is our team. Whether we’re playing against my country or whoever else, I’ll put our team first and try to come up with the best results we can have — that’s the most important thing.”

Japan's Julio Lamas speaks during an online news conference after Tuesday's draw for the Olympic basketball tournament. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Japan’s Julio Lamas speaks during an online news conference after Tuesday’s draw for the Olympic basketball tournament. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Japan’s women’s coach will be going up against his homeland as well.

Led by Colorado native Tom Hovasse, the women’s team will compete in Group B with the United States, France and Nigeria. Japan was routed by the U.S. 110-64 in the quarterfinals of the Rio Games in 2016. Team USA has won the last six Olympic gold medals.

Japan’s women’s team is much higher than the men in the world rankings, at No. 10. The U.S. is atop the rankings, while France is fifth and Nigeria is No. 14.

Hovasse, like Lamas, said he would focus on doing his best to lead his team to the best possible outcome.

“Although I’m an American, I’ve been in Japan for a long time and in terms of basketball, it was Japan that gave me all the opportunities,” said Hovasse, who played in the Japan Basketball League during part of the 90s and early 2000s. “So I don’t dwell on that. I’ll do my best for Japan.”

The Akatsuki Five will have to overcome a lot of adversity to reach its lofty goal of winning a gold medal on home soil, with both star forward Ramu Tokashiki, a former WNBA player, and guard Nako Motohashi currently sidelined with ACL injuries. Tokashiki’s injury, which appears to be more severe, has put her availability in jeopardy.

“(Tokashiki’s) injury is big,” Hovasse said. “She’s undergone surgery but we don’t know if she’ll be back in time. It might be difficult. Injuries are part of basketball, but it’s a shame that it had to happen to her. She’s been with our team for a long time and it was her goal to play at the Olympics. I’m sad for her. But everybody else on our team needs to step up.

“Motohashi’s injury is big, too. But we’ll move forward.”

Hovasee said the team may have to change its style without the pair.

He is also frustrated by the fact that while Japan has not been able to hold any training camps due to the COVID-19 pandemic, other countries, such as Australia and the U.S., have managed to practice.

“Our training camp for November was called off and the next time we can host a training camp will be in April,” Hovasse said. “So we don’t have a lot of time.”

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