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Japan women’s basketball team head coach Tom Hovasse had set a lofty goal of winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics by using a small-ball game plan.

But facing the potential of a tournament without their tallest player in Ramu Tokashiki, the Akatsuki Five might have to play even smaller at the Summer Games.

When it comes to global tournaments like the Olympics, Japan always has to live with its size disadvantage. Hovasse has emphasized stretching the floor offensively, capitalizing on his team’s speed and 3-point shooting to play on par with competing nations.

Despite having suffered a torn ACL in December, the 193-cm Tokashiki, who is widely considered the country’s best player, has trained with the provisional national squad. But she has focused on her rehab and it’s unclear if she will be available for the Olympics.

Hovasse, assuming he won’t have Tokashiki available, said that his squad has practiced to play smaller during their training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center, which wrapped up on Sunday.

“In my head, when we play France, it’s going to work effectively,” Hovasse said of his team’s small-ball game.

Japan will be grouped with France, Nigeria and the six-time reigning Olympic champion United States in Group B in the preliminary round in Tokyo. The host will square off against France in their first game of the competition on July 27 at Saitama Super Arena.

Rika Tanimura, a 185-cm center, said that the team has played with its players spread out on the floor in order to create more space and draw opposing defenders out.

“We’ve been playing more outside compared to when we have Tokashiki, and we have more formations to play with all our players outside,” Tanimura said. “So we’ve had more plays to use a wider court and we’ve got more space inside. So our players attack from outside with their speed and when they draw the defenders, they are going to kick passes out and have other players take 3s – I feel like we’ve been playing the brand of ball more clearly.”

Japan women's basketball head coach Tom Hovasse (center) instructs his players during a provisional national team training camp in Tokyo on Thursday. | COURTESY OF JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
Japan women’s basketball head coach Tom Hovasse (center) instructs his players during a provisional national team training camp in Tokyo on Thursday. | COURTESY OF JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION

Hovasse and point guard Rui Machida, both of whom competed at the 2016 Rio Games, said it is difficult to tell whether their small-ball game will bring success at the Olympics because it has only been practiced within the squad, which has not recently played against non-Japanese teams.

“We’ve been practicing with even smaller lineups,” Machida said. “But right now, it’s like Japan versus Japan with the smaller players taking on smaller players. So I don’t know how well this will work, but I’m looking forward to seeing how well we can play against bigger teams.”

Playing small does not mean that Japan does not need bigger players. Right now, veteran center Maki Takada is the only reliable presence for the team, and Hovasse hopes to add depth to the inside corps.

National team players are often asked to take on different roles from what they’re used to at their clubs, and that’s especially the case for Japan, where the domestic Women’s Japan Basketball League has no non-Japanese players on its rosters.

Hovasse identified Tanimura, the WJBL’s second-best rebounder (10.63 per game) in the 2020-21 season, and Monica Okoye as players who have not met his expectations during the camp, saying he wants “somebody to step up.”

“I’m not sure if that’s so because (Tanimura) is taking on better players,” Hovasse said. “She’s seen attacking from the low post for Hitachi (High-Technologies Cougars) but once she comes to the national team, she’s hesitant and it’s like she’s thinking about what she needs to do. So it’s taking time for her to adjust. I’m trying to be patient for now, but I want to see her own confident basketball.”

Hovasse described Okoye, who appears to be struggling to regain her confidence and has not provided her usual offensive output, as being in a similar situation.

“I understand what I’m being asked to do,” Tanimura said. “But I haven’t been able to perform as well as I would have liked to and there are few things I feel I’ve done in satisfactory fashion.”

The national team continues to be surrounded by uncertainty heading into the Olympics, but there have also been positive developments.

Hovasse suggested that Nako Motohashi, the reigning FIBA Women’s Asia Cup MVP guard who severely damaged her ACL in November, could start participating in team practices from next month’s training camp.

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