by Eric Angevine of Storming the Floor
I won’t lie, this post is going to be significantly less majestic than the one I had planned. Back when Don first asked me if I wanted to guest post, I thought it might be fun to look into the sudden surge of Australian players in the U.S., and their ties to the Australian Institute of Sport.
Well, all of a sudden Aussie freshmen Patrick Mills at St. Mary’s and A.J. Ogilvy at Vanderbilt start playing like future NBA draft picks and everyone under the sun, including ESPN, is covering the story. So rather than look like a coat-tail ridin’ son of a bitch, I figured I’d use some other information I gleaned while perusing rosters.
Since Don lives in Japan, I also happened to notice the names of native Japanese who are playing NCAA basketball. It’s a shorter list, but the fact that any Japanese players had come over and played DI at all came as a surprise to me. Are they the precursor to a vast wave of Japanese players? Doubtful. I think we’ll see baseball players in the NCAA en masse before we’ll see a sudden rash of 5’10” Nipponese point guards. But it’s still interesting to look at these unexpected visitors to our shores, so let’s do that:
K.J. Matsui, 6’2″ Junior Guard (Columbia, Ivy League) – K.J. is billed as the first Japanese player in DI. Matsui is – get this – a great shooter. He’s torching the nets, hitting 56% of his three-point tries this season.
Matsui played some high school ball in the U.S., starring at a prep school called Montrose Christian, located in Maryland. Nonetheless, Columbia coach Joe Jones showed serious interest in Matsui by traveling to Tokyo to meet his parents, and garnered a commitment to the top-notch academic institution that does not offer athletic scholarships.
The Lions are 4-6, but that doesn’t mean much in a league that serves as cannon-fodder for basketball factories across the nation in November and December. It’s the Ivy season – starting January 19th for Columbia – that will tell all.
Matsui has generally provided quick point production off of the bench for the Lions of Manhattan, picking up 15-20 minutes per game in his first two seasons. Over the past three games, however, his game time went from single digits to a season-high 32 minutes in a double-digit win over St. Francis of New York. With a game at powerful Villanova on Saturday the 22nd, we’ll see if these longer outings for Matsui are a mirage, or if he’s really worked his way into the rotation for good.
(My favorite part of this Matsui photo – the opposing player gnashing his teeth in the background as K.J. lofts his shot)
Taishi Ito, 6’0″ Sophomore Guard (Portland, West Coast Conference) – If K.J. was the first Japanese player in DI, Ito was not far behind. And guess where he went to school. Well, lordy be, it’s Montrose Christian. Ito was starting point guard for Montrose, and played for a team that defeated prep juggernaut Oak Hill Academy in 2006. The Washington Post made note of the teammates in a 2004 article:
In his 28-year career, (Montrose coach) Vetter has coached players from all over the world, but he said he never thought that a series of clinics for Nike in the Far East five years ago would pay this kind of dividend.
“You just get a general sense that people are surprised [about Matsui and Ito], obviously because it is somewhat unique,” said Vetter, whose team has started the season 6-0. “There aren’t many Japanese players in this country. But it doesn’t take people long to realize that they’re very talented.”
Ito recently missed a few of Portland’s games when his father died from a brain tumor, and he flew back to Japan to attend services. Upon his return to action on December 7th (Pearl Harbor Day… oh, the irony) Ito resumed his pace-setting role for the Pilots, putting in a steady 34 minutes per game at the point.
Ito doesn’t score much – just 7.1 points per game. He has shown that he can, with identical 13 point, 4 assist outings in losses to Pac-10 teams Oregon and Washington this year (he chipped in four steals vs. the Huskies). So far, however, his shot selection has been deplorable. His career shooting percentage of 33% can attest to that.
Obviously, the Pilots value Ito’s services, and he’s going to be in the starting lineup for the next two years. It will be interesting to see if he can improve his game.
So those are your Japanese basketball players in DI. A quick look at the current Montrose roster shows no obvious Asian names, so I guess the run has come to an end unless someone else has picked up the thread. Still, I’m geeky enough about college ball that I’ll probably keep an eye out for more.
Thanks for the space, Don! Hope you’re having a great holiday trip.