Road to China 2019: Will the Akatsuki Five's momentum carry them to the World Cup?
TOKYO (Japan) - Japan are aiming for a berth in the World Cup 2019, but to do that, they'll need to retain their sharp form in the final Asian Qualifiers window.
In this third of a five-part series, we put the spotlight on the Akatsuki Five, who are set to face Iran and Qatar in February.
Japan carry a 6-win, 4-loss slate in Group F, and that is good enough for third place. The top team in the group - Australia - has already qualified, while three other squads - Iran, Philippines and Kazakhstan - are still vying for qualification.
Their best chance of qualifying for the World Cup is for the Akatsuki Five to win their remaining two Asian Qualifiers fixtures. Doing so would give them 8 wins against 4 losses and that would put them into the World Cup and potentially leave the Philippines and Kazakhstan heartbroken.
If Japan end up with anything less than 7 wins, they will be in a precarious position. They've won their last 6 games, though, so they have a ton of momentum heading into the final window
Japan at the FIBAWC
The Akatsuki Five have qualified to the World Cup four times - in 1963, 1967, 1998 and when they hosted it in 2006. In that edition 13 years ago, Japan were in the same group as Spain, Germany, Angola, New Zealand and Panama.
In five group games, Japan won only once, a 78-61 triumph over the Panamanians. The Japanese were led by the likes of Takehiko Orimo, Satoro Furuta and Takuya Kawamura . The only players on that team who remain active members of the national team are twins Joji and Kosuke Takeuchi.
Japan finished the World Cup 2006 in joint 17th place with Brazil, Lebanon and Puerto Rico.
Head coach Julio Lamas and playmaker Yuki Togashi
"I'm looking forward to the success of the players in Iran match and Qatar!!"
"What we are trying to build is a style of game that Japan can be proud of. We want a style that is uniquely Japan, and we want all our players to buy in -- to play one way, the Japan way."
"I'm really pleased with how everyone has fought in our games, and we thank all the people for their support."
"I have been playing basketball for a long time, and I cannot imagine anything more valuable than playing for Japan in the World Cup and also in the Olympic Games next year here at home."
"I think that this last window is very important, so I really want to play in these two games and win for Japan."
Expert Opinion (Jeff Taylor)
Japan are the hottest team in Asia the past three windows with six straight wins but they still have some work to do to clinch a spot in the 32-team World Cup. Win twice and they're in, although a lone victory over Qatar, which is almost certain going to happen when reviewing Qatar's performances in the Qualifiers, could leave them in fourth place. Only the best of the two fourth-place teams in the two groups will qualify.
What we can effectively do right now is move Lebanon and Jordan up a spot in Group E from fourth- and fifth-place, respectively, to third and and fourth as China will not be included in the final standings.
Bearing that in mind, what helps Japan is that Jordan go into the last window as the likely team to finish fourth in the other group and they have one win less than the Japanese right now. Jordan have the unenviable task of facing China and New Zealand in the last window, although both games will be in Amman. It's hard to see them getting two wins so again so in my eyes, one victory should be enough for Japan.
Japan may just take matters into their own hands. They've played so well the past few windows that their confidence is high. That's even with a game at Iran, a team they thumped in Tokyo on September 6, 70-56. The make-ups of the teams will be different, however. While Japan will have big center Nick Fazekas, they will not have Yuta Watanabe (Memphis Grizzlies) or Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga). Iran, who did not have veterans Samad Nikkhah Bahrami or Hamed Hadadi in the first meeting, should have both this time. How impactful will they be, though? Neither will be able to play 40 minutes but each should provide a lot of points. From my vantage point, it's dead even going into that contest.
Japan will believe in their chances. Good execution on both ends of the floor can get them a famous road win. The fact that we are even talking about Japan like this after their nightmare start is incredible. When they began with losses in their first four games, including a 70-69 setback at home to Chinese Taipei on February 22 last year and an 89-84 defeat at the Philippines three days later, their prospects were bleak. Their fortunes changed when Fazekas and Hachimura played the last two games of the third window against Australia (June 29) and Chinese Taipei (July 2). The 2.11m (7ft) Fazekas gave the Akatsuki Five a reliable scorer on the low blocks and a terrific rebounder. He had 25 points and 12 boards to lead Japan past the Boomers, 79-78, in Chiba. Hachimura weighed in with 24 points and 7 rebounds. Japan then blew out Chinese Taipei, 108-68. Japan have brushed aside Kazakhstan twice, Iran and Qatar in the Second Round.
As for Japan's last Asian Qualifier at Qatar, it's hard to know when the men from Doha are going to play well. They led Japan 32-31 at half-time in Toyama in the first meeting before the hosts tore them to shreds in the second half en route to an 85-47 victory. Japan swept their two encounters at the FIBA Asia Cup 2015 in Changsha, China, and I anticipate another decisive victory in this one for the Far East team.