After two days of relative calm, the storm of upsets finally hit. It started when Nigel Hayes dropped in a layup with 11 seconds left in Wisconsin’s knockout of Villanova.
It was early Saturday afternoon, and it was a wake-up call, when the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed was eliminated.
“That was surely a big game,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker.
The Wildcats were 5½-point favorites and minus-270 on the moneyline in their 65-62 loss to the eighth-seeded Badgers. Vaccaro said the South Point sports book took two large moneyline parlays — one for $30,000 and another for $20,000 — that were tied to Villanova. The surprising demise of the defending champions triggered a winning weekend for bookmakers.
In the round of 64 games Thursday and Friday, favorites went 26-6 straight up yet 14-17-1 against the spread. The underdogs were covering, just not winning. Of the six ‘dogs to win, only Southern California (plus-7½) was getting more than two points.
“We didn’t have any drama, it seemed like, in any of the games,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “It all kind of turned Saturday with Villanova getting beat.”
Broken handle records
An absence of upsets did nothing to curtail the betting madness. According to VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo, who studied figures provided by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the state’s college basketball wagering handle was $295 million in March 2016.
“There’s no reason to think there’s not going to be another record handle for this year,” Magliulo said, “and it’s only going to increase in future years.”
All indications are the state’s tournament handle for March will approach $315 million.
Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay said his book’s handle for the first week was up 17 percent over last year.
“It is up, and I would say significantly,” Esposito said of the handle at Station Casinos.
In early February, when Tom Brady led the New England Patriots’ stunning Super Bowl comeback, a record $138.5 million was wagered in Nevada. But the NCAA Tournament, with its flurry of 67 games, more than doubles the NFL’s biggest game. Both are social events that continue to grow in popularity.
The sports wagering handle is surging in all areas, thanks in part to mobile betting apps. Picking up a cell phone to place a bet makes it easy to get in on the action. But phone account wagering is not cannibalizing counter business. The South Point opened 18 betting windows and hosted two packed ballrooms and a standing-room-only crowd in the book.
“In the first two days, we equalled what we wrote for the Super Bowl,” Vaccaro said.
On Saturday afternoon, Vaccaro said the South Point wrote around $500,000 in wagers on Arizona’s victory over Saint Mary’s. He said it was the book’s record for a single college basketball game.
“It’s a lot higher than anything I’ve seen since I got here,” he said. “It’s just incredible.”
The week’s best
The most dramatic shot, from a point-spread perspective, was launched by Jawun Evans, who drained a buzzer-beating 27-footer in Oklahoma State’s 92-91 loss to Michigan on Friday morning. The Cowboys were 2½-point underdogs.
The most impressive blowout was staged by Xavier, the 11th seed in the West Region. The Musketeers, 7½-point ‘dogs, got 29 points from Trevon Bluiett in a 91-66 embarrassment of third-seeded Florida State on Saturday.
Saturday night’s late game was one of the thrillers of the tournament. Fittingly, Iowa State-Purdue closed pick’em at the South Point. The Cyclones wiped out a 19-point second-half deficit to take their first lead with three minutes remaining. The Boilermakers gave it away and then took it back, winning 80-76 as Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan and Deonte Burton dueled down the stretch. The score slipped over the closing total of 155, and it’s worth noting that most of the week’s games were going over the total (34-17-1).
Michigan continued its magic carpet ride by sending Rick Pitino home early. The Wolverines, 3-point ‘dogs, erased an 8-point halftime deficit to defeat Louisville 73-69 on Sunday. As far as coaches go, John Beilein is elite.
Predictions of the Big Ten’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin advanced to the Sweet 16, with Michigan State and Northwestern each winning a game.
The Pac-12 performed up to expectations. The conference’s big three — Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — survived scares to advance, and USC picked up two wins.
From a point-spread perspective, the Trojans were winners in their 82-78 loss to Baylor on Sunday. USC closed as a 5½-point underdog. After a missed 3, Chimezie Metu’s one-handed tap-in from about 12 feet beat the buzzer and the spread. It was not a meaningless shot.
Tyler Dorsey was a shooting star for the Ducks. Dorsey hit a go-ahead 3-pointer from the top with 38 seconds to go. He also tied the score with a 3 with 1:45 remaining. He finished with 27 points to rally Oregon past Rhode Island.
Lonzo Ball and the Bruins quieted some skeptics. Ball made 4 of 7 3-pointers and added nine assists as UCLA, down three at halftime, played some defense and ran away from Cincinnati 79-67.
When two great defensive teams collide, it can be a thing of beauty. The Kentucky-Wichita State game went to the wire Sunday, with the Wildcats escaping 65-62. It was a reminder to bettors to get the best number. The line opened 4½ and closed 3.
Mike Krzyzewski and Grayson Allen are going home. How great is that? Duke, a 6½-point favorite, lost a seven-point halftime lead and allowed 65 points in the second half of an 88-81 loss to South Carolina. The Blue Devils were heavily supported as co-favorites to win the tournament, so bookmakers were smiling.
The week’s worst
The hyped Atlantic Coast Conference deserves to hear the overrated chant. Nine teams got in, and eight are out. Wake Forest was eliminated in the First Four. Virginia Tech fell to Wisconsin. Miami was blown out by Michigan State. Notre Dame was a disappointment. Florida State was humiliated in a 25-point loss to Xavier. Virginia scored only 39 points in a loss to Florida. Louisville and Duke capped off the ACC’s crash landing. The sole survivor, North Carolina, was lucky to get past Arkansas on Sunday.
Basketball is a beautiful game often ruined by the refs. Officiating blunders were expected, but there were too many in critical moments. The NCAA apologized for a missed goaltending call in Northwestern’s second-round loss to Gonzaga. The Tar Heels’ game-closing 12-0 run against Arkansas included an officiating fiasco. There were several more cases of sorry officiating.
Wichita State’s final two possessions could not have gone any worse in its loss to Kentucky. The first ended with the Wildcats’ Malik Monk blocking an ill-advised jumper by Markis McDuffie. With time about to expire, Bam Adebayo blocked Landry Shamet’s futile 3-point try to tie.
Rhode Island’s final shot was almost as bad in its loss to Oregon. With plenty of time to get a good look, E.C. Matthews fired up a contested 3-pointer that resulted in an airball.
As always, the NCAA selection committee made some obvious mistakes. Wichita State, which drew a 10 seed, was worthy of a 5. Minnesota, knocked out by 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee in the first round, did not deserve a 5 seed. Wisconsin, which beat Minnesota twice and reached the Big Ten tournament title game, was a No. 8?
The gambling man
Las Vegas casino owner Derek Stevens is a gambler and a showman. On the VSiN show on Selection Sunday, Stevens fired $11,000 bets on all 32 opening lines posted at the South Point. He started miserably, rallied briefly and finished 10-19-3 to lose $109,000.
But there is a bright side for Stevens. Last week, he walked into the Golden Nugget book downtown and made a $12,500 futures wager on Michigan at 80-1 odds. If the Wolverines win it all, Stevens will win $1 million. He’s got a legit shot.
The week ahead
Millions of brackets are busted — who else had Duke and Louisville in the Final Four? — but it’s time to move on. The Sweet 16 lines are posted.
Michigan is a 1½-point favorite over Oregon on Thursday. The winner faces either Purdue or Kansas in Kansas City. The Jayhawks, led by senior point guard Frank Mason III, are 4½-point favorites over “Biggie” and the Boilermakers.
Gonzaga is a 3-point favorite over West Virginia. How will Nigel Williams-Goss and the Zags’ guards handle the Mountaineers’ pressure?
Butler, a 7½-point underdog to North Carolina, will hope for a fairly officiated game.
“What’s really going to be interesting is the UCLA-Kentucky rematch,” Magliulo said. “That’s a terrific rematch.”
Magliulo made Kentucky a 2½-point favorite in Friday’s game at Memphis, but UCLA opened minus-1. Looking back, the Bruins were 11-point underdogs in a 97-92 win in Lexington on Dec. 3.
The road to the Final Four continues without Coach K, Pitino and Villanova.
March always delivers drama, sooner or later.