BANGKOK (FIBA Asia Championship for Women/FIBA World Championship for Women) - If ever there were a sure thing when it comes to international basketball, it's the final four at the FIBA Asia Championships for Women.
For as long as anyone can remember, China, Korea, Japan and Chinese Taipei have made it to the Semi-Finals of the competition that is held every two years.
Not since 1984 in Shanghai, China, has another side the cracked the top four.
The Philippines finished fourth that year behind Korea, China and Japan.
The long tradition of either China or Korea finishing top of the podium, however, may be about to change.
In the 25th edition of the event being held this week Bangkok, Thailand, Japan have gone unbeaten and have looked impressive in doing so.
Japan haven't won the title since 1970, with either Korea or China instead capturing gold.
Unless we've all been dreaming, Bangkok has revealed that the 'Land of the Rising Sun' is now the 'Land of the Rising Stars'.
The side led by veteran tactician Tomohide Utsumi is fast and furious.
It has flair, but also discipline.
Most impressive of all is the confidence.
One never gets the feeling that Japan are going to lose, even when they were in danger of doing so against Korea.
The Japanese made a couple of late free-throws to force overtime and then won, 78-71.
Defensively, Japan have excelled.
Against Chinese Taipei, Japan intercepted one pass after another and blew their opponents to smithereens.
Asami Yoshida, the point guard, came up with four steals and both Yuka Mamiya and Ramu Tokashiki, the 22-year-old center and best player in the competition, each had two more.
Tokashiki also swatted four shots.
In their triumph over Korea, captain Yuko Oga had four of the team's nine steals.
Their best defensive showing came Thursday against China, the two-time defending champions.
Utsumi put his players into a zone that was so active, China rarely looked to penetrate.
Tokashiki, Michiko Miyamoto and Yoshida had three steals and Japan 12 overall.
They went in front by 15 and eased to a 62-55 victory.
China have a lot of talent themselves, with Lu Wen, Zhao Shuang and Gao Song a trio of youngsters who have yet to fully blossom, yet they came up second best against Japan.
"We tried to stop them inside, and we played very well against their big players inside," Yoshida said.
Most important for Japan is that the athletic and long-armed Tokashiki is the last wall of defense.
"She was able to play in the post against the big players of both Korea and China and did very, very well," Yoshida said.
"That's why we beat them. But also on offense, she gives our three-point shooters more confidence to put the ball up because they know she will get the rebound if they miss.'
Tokashiki is going to be one of the biggest stars in Asia for a long time.
She is averaging 16.6 points, although that's misleading because in the team's penultimate Preliminary Round game against India, she only played seven minutes and scored four points.
If healthy, as she wasn't last year when a sprained ankle prevented her from playing at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women, the national team is much, much better.
When asked if the program had ever had a player like her, Utsumi replied: "Never. She's the first one."
As for how this happened, that Japan would suddenly have an athletic and gifted 1.92m power forward, Utsumi laughed.
"When she was in junior high school, she was very athletic," he said.
"But that time, she didn't know how to play basketball.
"She didn't have the skill. But she is getting better and better like everyone in the team."
Utsumi says she can be a lot better.
"She needs to learn to use both hands more, and become more physical," he said.
Of the four teams chasing the top three spots that will qualify team for the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women, Korea are the most perplexing.
They showed grit and determination in an opening night 72-70 victory over China, and played Japan tough before falling in overtime.
Yet in their 63-58 defeat to Chinese Taipei on Thursday, Korea did nothing.
Their level of physicality on defense dropped substantially, and the shots didn't fall on offense.
Kwak Joo Yeong, the player who buried a game-winning jump shot at the end of regulation to down the Chinese, sprained her ankle.
Korea looked tired and without ambition.
They will take on China again, in the Semi-Finals, and must raise their level of intensity.
Chinese Taipei, despite their win over Korea, remain the biggest of the underdogs in the last four.
They will square off against Japan for the second time in the other Semi-Final.
For full and in-depth coverage of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship for Women, go to the official http://bangkok2013.fibaasia.net.
photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images