Anybody out there old enough to remember the third place game of the NCAA basketball tournament?
They used to play a third place game during the Final Four weekend - they really did. The last one I remember featured Sidney Moncrief and Ron Brewer. The two losing teams from the semi-finals, their NCAA championship dreams only recently crushed, were trotted out to play for the honor of... what? In the winner-take-all US sports culture, the game was of no interest, and felt a little sad. Which is why it hasn't existed lo these 20 some years. As Ricky Bobby says, "If you ain't first, you're last."
International basketball competitions have always taken the 'third place game' approach to ridiculous extremes. Sure, you need to play a third place game to officially determine the Bronze Medal winner, but seriously, you couldn't give out two sets of Bronze Medals? It's the Bronze for Pete's sake. No one really cares. But that's not enough. They play a fifth place game AND a seventh place game. Which means of course that the losers in the quarterfinals continue to play two more games - you could feel really good about your team reaching the quarters, and then close out the tourney with three straight losses! Talk about a buzz kill.
But, for this one time at least, all of the remaining games in EuroBasket 2007 really matter. Because this is also an Olympic qualifier, and because of the unique situation of this particular tournament, every spot is crucial.
Spain has already qualified for Beijing by virtue of winning the Worlds last year. Two more automatic berths are up for grabs at EuroBasket, and they'll go to the top two teams OTHER than Spain. In addition, four European teams will qualify for the final pre-Olympic tournament for a chance at one of the at-large Olympic berths. That means that seven of the eight quarter-finalists still have a chance at Beijing. Assuming Spain advances to the final game (looking like a pretty good bet the way they're playing - they crushed Dirk and Germany yesterday), there is something at stake in almost every single game yet to be played.
The two finalists will have qualified for the Olympics already, but will be playing for the European Championship, which these teams take very seriously. So there's plenty at stake there.
The semi-finals of the tournament will determine an automatic Olympic berth. Winning in the semi-final game means you're in the Olympics, regardless of the outcome of the final.
The third place game, assuming it does not involve Spain, will be for the final automatic berth. These teams do NOT want to have to play a pre-Olympic tournament just to get to Beijing next year - not after the NBA and EuroBasket seasons. That third place game is huge from an Olympic standpoint.
The semi-finals of the 'losers bracket' is perhaps even more significant. Those teams (France and Germany so far, two more to join them today) will be playing for a spot in the pre-Olympic tournament to keep their Olympic hopes alive. A win in the semis of the losers bracket means you're in the pre-Olympic tournament. A loss means your head is still on the chopping block.
For two teams, it will come down to the usually forgotten eighth place game. The winner there still has a shot at Beijing. The loser is eliminated from the Olympics.
Out of all the remaining games, usually complete afterthoughts for everyone except perhaps the parents of the participants, there is only one that is without major significance. The fifth place game will be strictly for pride - both teams will have already qualified for the pre-Olympic tournament, and neither will receive an automatic berth, regardless of the outcome.
FYI, I looked it up. Virginia defeated LSU in the last third place Final Four game in 1981.