TOKYO, June 30 (Reuters) - Japan's top player in 3x3 basketball is eager to prove that the host nation can be medal contenders when the fast-paced sport makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
The absence of men's world champions the United States, who failed to qualify for the Games, has left the field left wide open and Tomoya Ochiai is optimistic that Japan will be in the medal mix thanks to their recent form.
Ochiai led his squad to an upset victory over a top-ranked Serbian team last month. That along with recent victories by the Japanese women has given him confidence that his country can hang with the sport's best teams.
"I feel like we're in really close contention for medals," said Ochiai, known as "The Worm" for his aggressive defence and rebounding in the style of NBA great Dennis Rodman.
As host nation, Japan's teams earned automatic berths while other nations had to tough out qualifiers. The United States men, who won the 2019 World Cup, were upset by the Netherlands and knocked out of Olympic contention last month.
In all, eight national teams each of men and women will gather in Tokyo in July in the first Olympic staging of 3x3 ball. Serbia and Latvia are considered favourites on the men's side, while France and Russia are the top-ranked women's teams.
Ochiai led his team to a fourth place finish at the 3x3 Lipik Challenger tournament in Croatia last month, highlighted with his winning shot in overtime to topple the No. 1 ranked Liman squad from Serbia.
The 34-year old is ranked 69th in the world by FIBA, the organising body for 3x3, but he's the top player from Japan, where he plays pro ball for the Koshigaya Alphas. The 6'5" athlete also works as a model and actor.
3x3 is like standard basketball, but played on a half-size court with three players on each side instead of five. The 10-minute time limit and 12-second shot clock give the game a frenetic feel, while courtside DJs spinning hip-hop are a call-back to the sport's urban, street-ball roots.
Japan has not been a global contender in traditional basketball, but the compact, fast pace of 3x3 could give the nation an opportunity to shine, Ochiai said.
"If Japanese players can win at 3x3, I think that would be a showcase of our courage and power to the world," Ochiai said.
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