#Rio2016: China and Japan have work cut out for them after 2016 Olympic draws

Ramu Tokashiki is expected to have a big showing in #Rio2016.
(image from FIBA.)

This first appeared on my weekly column on FIBA.com.

If the Group Phase of the Rio 2016 Olympic Basketball Tournament will separate the pretenders from the contenders, then both China and Japan better watch out because they will surely be in for mighty tough competition.

At the last Olympics in London four years ago, China went win-less in five games, losing to Spain, Russia, Australia, Brazil and hosts Great Britain. It was a sorry result compared to their eighth-place finishes in 2004 and 2008. Two years later, China weren't even at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. As for Japan, they didn't even qualify for the 2012 Games, where China was Asia's sole representative). They did, however, make it to the 2014 FIBA Women's World Championship, but they too fell short of notching even one win, losing to Spain, Czech Republic and Brazil by an average of 20.3 points.

After the Official Draws of the Rio 2016 Olympic Basketball Tournaments for Men and Women took place at the House of Basketball last Friday, I cannot say that fortunes will change much for either squad when they kick off basketball hostilities later this year.
First, let's take a look at China, who reclaimed the FIBA Asia Championship last year after losing it in 2013.

They are grouped with the USA, Venezuela, Australia and two countries that will qualify through any of the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments (OQT). Of those teams, only Venezuela is ranked below China (and not by much) in the current FIBA World Ranking for Men, and, if teams stay true to form, it’s likely that any two of the following squads may complete the cast in this group: France, Serbia or Greece.

Even with a complete and healthy roster, coach Gong Luming will find that every game will be an uphill climb for his wards. The Chinese will have a lot of size to match-up with teams in their group at this level, but the biggest question marks for this team deal with leadership, consistency, and depth.

Everyone knows the Chinese play much much better when they are on home soil, as proven by their winning the Asian titles in 2011 and 2015, and placing 8th overall in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Obviously, they won’t be playing at home this year, and they’ll open their campaign against no less than defending champs and the consensus deepest team in the world, Team USA. That will be the worst possible start for a team like China, which really rides on momentum in a tournament like this. This is where leadership comes in, and coach Gong will undoubtedly look to his veteran big man, Yi Jianlian, to fill that role. In the previous Olympic Games, Yi actually led the field in rebounding with 10.2 caroms per game, and he will need to approximate that production again in Rio while also having to be more aggressive in scoring and pushing his generally young teammates to step up. That may be a difficult task for a guy who couldn’t last very long in the NBA, and whose club team has failed to clinch the CBA title for three years running.

Consistency will also be a big concern for China. In these past few years, the Chinese have shown that they are just as capable of losing to an inferior team as they are capable of beating the best in Asia. In 2015, they beat both Korea and Iran in the FIBA Asia Championship, but just a year prior they lost to India in the FIBA Asia Cup and also dropped an historic game to bitter rival Chinese Taipei in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila. For China to make a splash in Rio, they will have raise their level of play not just once or twice, but in every single game.

Now, let’s say Yi holds his own and China plays consistently good basketball, one lingering weakness of this team will always be depth, or the lack thereof. When one tries to make a comparison, it’s inevitable to see that team’s prospective roster will just pale in comparison with most if not all of the other teams in their group. Team USA goes without saying, of course, and Australia, even if they weren’t at full strength, would be a much deeper team. Venezuela, if Greivis Vasquez opts to return to national team duty, may also be considered deeper than China, and everyone knows how they dismantled more ballyhooed competition last year, right?

Needless to say, unless another Asian team or an additional African squad qualifies, China is projected to be among the minnows in Group A.

Next, let’s weigh the chances of Japan, who repeated as Asian queens after pocketing the plum last year at the expense of the Chinese.

I loved watching Japan at the 2015 FIBA Asia Women’s Championship. They were just whirlwinds who couldn’t be tamed. They ran the gauntlet and ruled it, winning all seven of their assignments in devastating fashion (Their average winning margin as 31 points). Coach Tomohide Utsumi had at his disposal perhaps the most balanced team in that field. WNBA rising star Ramu Tokashiki was the team’s unassailable anchor in the middle, perimeter specialist Sanae Motokawa could score in so many ways, and pint-sized Asami Yoshida was a playmaking wizard.

Against teams like Brazil and Australia, and quite possibly countries like Spain, France, China, Belarus or Turkey (if they qualify), the Japanese really won’t be able to afford any off-days. Unlike the Chinese men’s team, coach Utsumi’s ladies won’t have an edge in size. As it is, Tokashiki, the team’s tallest player at 1.92m, will be Japan’s only viable match-up against the likes of Brazil’s triple towers: Damiris Dantas, Nadia Colhado, and Erika de Souza, or Australia’s Suzy Batkovic, Natalie Burton and maybe even Lauren Jackson.

That means that there will be more pressure for Motokawa and Yoshida to produce, while members of the supporting cast like Chinatsu Yamamoto, Yuka Mamiya and Maki Takada will have to fast-track their own improvement.

There is no doubt that China and Japan will not be among the favorites in the 2016 Rio Olympics, but if they prepare well enough, stay healthy, and receive a significant degree of good fortune, who knows, right? Sometimes, the biggest surprises come from the most unexpected sources.




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