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Japan's 8-game winning run was the Asian Qualifiers' best Cinderella story
TOKYO (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers) - Japan are heading to the FIBA Basketball World Cup for the first time since hosting it in 2006, and it's thanks to the most remarkable Cinderella story of the World Cup Qualifiers.
"I want to play a part in creating the history of Japan’s basketball." - Joji Takeuchi
With two easy wins in the final window of the Asian Qualifiers, Japan finished their campaign sitting pretty at second place in Group F behind Australia. Japan ended the Asian Qualifiers with an 8-win, 4-loss slate, a feat surpassed by just one thing - all 8 of those wins came in the final four windows.
Remember that Japan were not the invincible juggernaut they now seemingly look like. Far from it.
Not too long ago, Japan were languishing at the very bottom of Group B in the first round of the Asian Qualifiers, losers of their first four matches. They lost twice to the Philippines, once to Australia on the road and, quite unexpectedly, once to Chinese Taipei at home.
Entering the third Asian Qualifiers window in 2018 June, expectations were not high for the Akatsuki Five even with young star Rui Hachimura and new naturalized player Nick Fazekas in tow. They were set to open the third window at the Chiba Port Arena against powerhouse and erstwhile undefeated Australia, who were headlined by bona fide NBA players Thon Maker and Matthew Dellavedova.
Bucking the odds, however, Japan pulled off perhaps the most amazing upset of the Asian Qualifiers - a 79-78 escape act that dealt the Boomers their first loss of the entire competition and that sparked an incredible turnaround for a national team that had long seen their fortunes fluctuate and flounder.
After that landmark result, Japan blew out Chinese Taipei on the road at the Taipei Heping Gymnasium to book the last berth to the second round, where they are the only FIBA Asia team to win every single game.
Yes, this Japanese quintet that practically everyone had given up on swept all six of their second round assignments, beating Kazakhstan, Qatar and perennial three-time FIBA Asia Cup champions Iran by an average of 23.2 points en route to booking their tickets to China 2019.
In the process, Japan may have also established a legitimate claim to an automatic berth to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as hosts.
No other team from anywhere in the world managed to climb from a 0-win, 4-loss hole to still make it to the World Cup.
Japan are in a class all their own because of what they've accomplished, and because of it they've reignited basketball's spark in Japan's collective consciousness. The national team's recent success has no doubt had a hand in the growing interest and support for their fledgling B.League, and with the World Cup being held in neighboring China, it shouldn't come as a surprise if we'll see a strong influx of crazed Japanese fans to rally their Akatsuki Five to try and spring more surprises this coming August and September.
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One of the guys who has seen much of the peaks and valleys of Japanese hoops is big man Joji Takeuchi, one half of the famed Takeuchi twins (the other being Kosuke) who debuted on the world stage in the World Cup 2006, playing their group games in Hiroshima. The twins are the only remnants of the Japanese squad form that tournament, and the signficance of that is not lost on Joji, who was rock-solid for the Akatsuki Five in the final window.
"To be honest, at that time, we just strove to catch up with our 'senpai' (senior team members) and had neither the awareness nor a responsibility as members of the national basketball team," Joji recalled of his experience in 2006. "Now I want to play a part in creating the history of Japan’s basketball."
Joji was there when Japan routinely failed to make it to the top five of succeeding FIBA Asia Cups since the World Cup 2006. He was there when Japan suffered through a FIBA suspension in 2014. He was there when Japan broke through and made it to the Semi-Finals of the FIBA Asia Cup 2015 only to falter again two years later and finish ninth place overall at the FIBA Asia Cup 2017.
Now, Joji sees a light at the end of the tunnel for Japanese basketball, not just because of their successful return to the World Cup but perhaps more because of the rising level of talent in the country as evidenced by young stars like Rui Hachimura of Gonzaga University, Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies and Chikara Tanaka of the IMG Academy. This has pushed Joji to reimagine his own game to complement the national team's evolving play-style under head coach Julio Lamas.
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"I cannot let the young guys beat me," he said. "I want to fill in the gap between myself and them. I am happy that our team was able to reach our current level on our own, which resulted in our gaining confidence and strength."
Confidence and strength are certainly two things Japan will need as they soon start preparations for the World Cup, where they are hoping to see an extension of their fascinating Cinderella story.