RMU's first Japanese women's basketball player Honoka Ikematsu adjusting to college life, game in U.S.
For a team-bonding activity, Robert Morris women's basketball players and coaches visited a “haunted house” in the fall. Among the most apprehensive in the group was freshman Honoka Ikematsu. The native of Japan never visited an American haunted house and admitted she was nervous.
So nervous, in fact, she shoved assistant coach and compatriot Asami Morita to the front of their pack as they made their way through.
As it turned out, Ikematsu said, the haunted house experience wasn't as scary as she anticipated. It's a lot like her journey as a college basketball player in America: initial uncertainty but, the further it progresses, less and less daunting.
The Colonials' first player from Japan has been asked to take on more responsibility than perhaps she or the coaching staff planned. The graduation of the program's most successful senior class and some early-season injuries thrust Ikematsu into the spotlight.
Starting every game at point guard, she has team-highs in assists (30) and 3-point percentage (.400, 16 for 40) and averages 6.8 points. The Colonials are 7-4.
“I'm trying to have fun in the games, but I'm still concentrating on my job,” said Ikematsu, who never heard of RMU until Morita began recruiting her. “I have to do this and this. I have to grow up mentally.”
Ikematsu's adjustment has been considerable — even in a program like Robert Morris that has built much of its recent success on overseas players.
The obvious hurdle was the language barrier. Japanese kids, coach Charlie Buscaglia said, often aren't schooled in English like students from other nations. As a 10th-grader, Ikematsu came to the Seattle area for several weeks to attend basketball camps and begin learning English.
It was at that point she decided she wanted to play and study at an American college. But it wasn't as simple as merely submitting an application. She had to pass several tests to show her academics and English were proficient enough gain admittance to Robert Morris.
Even now she sometimes stumbles with her English, but through all of it, Buscaglia said, Ikematsu has maintained her “joy.”
“She's got more going on than the normal student-athlete,” he said. “Think about how miserable sometimes our American Division I scholarship players are. They can get real miserable about how tough things are for them.
“Just think about what she has to go through, and that should be an inspiration for a lot of people to see what she's handling.”
Getting accustomed to American-style basketball presented another challenge. Whereas the Japanese game is built on quickness, over here, the game is more rough-and-tumble.
“Honoka has a very good pace to play basketball,” Morita said. “She has a good sense to see the floor. The biggest concern I had was the physicality.
“But she can play up-tempo and fast-paced. She has a good motor and can go a lot of minutes.”
Said Ikematsu: “I need physicality, and I have to read the team as a point guard. I need to communicate with my teammates. Communication is very important.”
As far as she has come as a player, Ikematsu still has plenty of room to grow.
Her team-leading assist total is tempered by her team-leading turnover total (33). Her foot speed needs to be complemented by quickness in other areas like a faster release on her passes and split-second decision-making.
But overall, Buscaglia said he likes her trajectory, especially considering how she was thrown into the proverbial fire. He said he believes if she continues to make incremental improvements, she will be a solid Northeast Conference point guard in the coming years.
“She's been given a tough role, but she's handling it with a lot of grace,” Buscaglia said. “She hasn't got it completely, but she's working toward it. The bulk of minutes she's playing and the responsibility she's had, she's really handling things well for someone coming all the way from Japan.”