Spain-Brazil loser has easier path

Updated: August 6, 2012, 9:14 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LONDON -- The United States and Argentina are ready to rekindle one of the fiercest rivalries in international basketball, but no game on Monday's schedule will be scrutinized more than the Spain-Brazil matchup that precedes Team USA's Group A finale.

That's because Spain and Brazil both appear to have great incentive to lose in their final installment of men's Olympic basketball pool play.

The winner of the Spain-Brazil encounter would finish second in Group B and advance to a likely quarterfinal matchup with Argentina, with Team USA looming in the semifinals.

The loser, by contrast, would fall into a quarterfinal matchup with France and likely see Russia in the semifinals if it can get past the French, thereby avoiding the Americans until the gold-medal game.

Russia had clinched the top spot in Group B before its loss Monday to Australia on a buzzer-beater from San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills.

Obsessing over such permutations is a staple of top-level international basketball competitions. But the spotlight on Olympic tanking has never been brighter after the Badminton World Federation expelled eight female badminton players from the Summer Games last week for trying intentionally to lose matches to set up more favorable matchups.

Four pairs of badminton players from China, South Korea and Indonesia, all of whom had already qualified for the quarterfinals before their final group-stage matches last Tuesday night, were charged with not doing their best to win a match and abusing or demeaning the sport.

FIBA, basketball's international governing body, does not speak to national federations beforehand in such instances and has no plans, in the wake of the badminton scandal, to issue any sort of pregame warnings to Spain or Brazil, according to a tournament source.

Spain and Brazil carry respective 3-1 records into Monday's showdown, both having lost to tournament upstart Russia. Coached by Princeton alumnus David Blatt, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, Russia concludes group play Monday against the Aussies.

Spain would appear to have an advantage -- if one can call it that -- in the event that it decided a loss would lead to the best overall gold-medal path. Spanish cornerstones Juan Carlos Navarro (foot) and Marc Gasol both have been playing hurt and can justifiably be rested for the Brazil game that wraps up Group B.

But even with multiple Spanish newspapers running polls that suggest a majority of fans support the idea of letting Brazil win, Spanish Basketball Federation president Jose Luis Saez tweeted Sunday that the reigning European Champions will do no such thing.

In Spanish, Saez tweeted Sunday that he "can't identify myself" with the idea of losing a game on purpose and admonished fans for promoting the idea by saying "you can't sell your principles."

Brazil coach Ruben Magnano and former New Orleans Hornets swingman Marcus Vinicius, meanwhile, bristled Saturday night when reporters asked about the tanking possibility after their lopsided victory over China.

"It's very difficult to think any team can do that," Vinicius said. "We are in their same level and we will try to win the game."

"We're not going to beat ourselves up about losing to Russia," Magnano added. "The past is the past. The coach's job is to transmit to players that we have to win games, not speculate about (future outcomes)."

Magnano was the coach of Argentina in 2004, when it beat Team USA in the semifinals and went on to win the gold medal in Athens.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics