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Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009

INSIDE LOOK

Playing in Ivy League presents challenges


Special to The Japan Times

NEW YORK — Team update: The senior shooting guard helped the Columbia University men's basketball team record back-to-back home victories over Yale and Brown last week. It was the Lions' first sweep over those schools since 2004.

News photo
K.J. Matsui COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

With 10 regular-season games remaining, including road games against Pennsylvania and Princeton this weekend, Columbia (7-11, 2-2) is in the thick of things in the race to be the Ivy League champion.

Matsui, the team's resident 3-point shooting specialist (25-for-81) has helped the Lions, who have only three seniors, remain a competitive team during this transition season for the program.

* * * * *

Today, I'd like to focus on what happens behind the scenes in college basketball. As players, we put in a lot of time to prepare ourselves to perform our best in each game. People might think that we just come on the court one hour before the game and get ourselves to play the game. However, that's not the case.

People at the gym can only see the players one hour before the game, so they can think that way. Actually, most people don't understand how we prepare ourselves every game, so I would like to use this opportunity to explain it. In truth, we use days and days to prepare for just one game.

This is my typical routine for a home game:

We usually have a game at night, at 7 p.m., so on game day, we have a walk through/shootaround. The walk through begins around 1 p.m. and ends at about 2:30 p.m., and this is when we come in the gym, take shots and run the set plays to make sure everyone is on the same page.

We also go over the opponent's offense and defense. We practice against their set offense and defense to get used to the opponent's playing style.

Basically, this is like a review session before an exam.

Then around 3 p.m, as a team, we eat our pre-game meal.

Why do we eat at this time?

It's always four hours before the game because it takes four hours to digest food and gives us maximum energy when the game starts.

The pre-game meal is always the same in my four years in college. We eat chicken, pasta with tomato sauce, sweet potato, salad, broccoli and spinach. Of course, we can't drink soda or any types of juice. We can only drink water.

After the pre-game meal, everyone goes back to their room and thinks about the game and gets ready mentally. Some players take a nap during this time but I always stay up and relax.

When I was in the high school, my coach always told us not to go to sleep before the game because your body goes to sleep as well. That is why, I always kept awake. I usually watch TV or listen to music.

Around 5:15 p.m., I'll head to the gym, wearing sweatpants and also put on my headphones, to get myself hyped before the game. I mostly listen to hip-hop but some J-pop as well.

I get dressed and get my ankles taped and start stretching around 5:45. At 6, one hour before the game, that's when people start to come to the gym and watch our warmup. Between our warmup and tipoff, we have the last pre-game meeting with the coaches.

Coach Joe Jones always focuses on our defense and rebounding because he believes that the team that defends and rebounds will walk away with a win. But every game is different, so his focal points are different depending on our opponent.

Coach sometimes emphasizes transition defense, ball pressure and boxing out in these meetings. In other games, he focuses on defensive rotation, getting through screens, or communication on the defensive ends. But most importantly, he wants us to play hard and play together every possession.

From looking at this, you can see that even on game day, we prepare ourselves six hours before the game starts. On game day, it's important to get my body relaxed and rested, but the most important thing is mental preparation.

* * * * *

Columbia University is a member of the Ivy League, which is a unique conference for three seasons:

• It does not award athletic scholarships.

• It doesn't have a conference tournament after the regular season like the rest of the NCAA Division I conferences.

• It is the only conference that plays game back to back, meaning it has league games on Friday night and Saturday night.

Because we don't have a conference tournament, the league title is decided by the 14-game league schedule. And that is why every game for us is like a championship game.

It puts a lot of pressure on us to get a win every game, and we have to be ready to play two games in two days. Every week, we have to prepare ourselves to play two different teams, and we can't play one night well and not well the next day.

That's why I think playing in this conference is very hard, especially when we have two away games. So that's why we have to elevate our game even higher.

For example, when we play Harvard and Dartmouth in the same weekend, we play Friday night at Harvard (Boston) then after the game, we drive all the way to Dartmouth (N.H.). When we get to New Hampshire, it is close to 1:30 a.m. or 2 a.m.

Then we get up at 9 a.m. to go over Dartmouth's scouting report and have our shootaround. And even though it's an away game, we always follow the game-day routine that I detailed above.

Tokyo native K.J. Matsui is the first Japanese male to play Division I basketball in the United States. Now a senior, he is one of the nation's best 3-point shooters.


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