Editor’s Note: We’re going to miss this year’s NCAA Tournament as much as everyone else. Instead of dwelling on the disappointment, however, Talking Points has decided to look back on some of the most memorable moments over the last decade of covering the tournament in Las Vegas. Here’s part 1 in our week-long series.
Anyone who’s ever bet on sports has a worst beat story, and the majority of such bad-luck tales always seem to come from the NCAA Tournament.
It makes sense if you think about it, another testament to the astonishing scope of betting action that takes place on college basketball from March to early April. The Nevada Gaming Control Board reported $495.46 million in total handle on basketball last March alone, more than three times the amount wagered on the most bet-on Super Bowl of all-time two years ago.
The American Gaming Association estimated that Americans wagered $8.5 billion on last year's tournament, mostly illegally. With that much money and that many games — 67 per NCAA Tournament in the current format — there’s bound to be some devastation.
Two of the most popularly-spread bad beat stories involve the same program — who else but Duke. There are those who held money line tickets on Kentucky in the 1992 Elite 8 when Christian Laettner hit arguably the most famous shot in history to lead the Blue Devils past the Wildcats 104-103 at the overtime buzzer.
Perhaps more commonly, there are those who still curse Chris Duhon for a banking in a 40-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer of a 2004 Final Four loss to Connecticut. Play-by-play man Jim Nantz infamously declared, “it doesn’t matter,” oblivious to the fact that millions of dollars had changed hands with the shot leading to Duke covering the 2-point spread in a 79-78 loss.
I guess that makes me similar to everyone else, because the Blue Devils also inflicted the most pain I’ve ever felt from a sports wager. The knockout blow came five years ago, in a Sweet 16 game in Houston against Utah.
Of the eight regional semifinal matchups slated at the conclusion of the first weekend of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, one leapt off the betting board. No. 5 seed Utah was not nearly as hopeless against No. 1 seed Duke as public perception indicated; the Utes should not be getting 5.5 points on the spread.
Duke looked like the first- or second-most talented team in the nation behind Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook but Utah quietly had NBA prospects of its own in Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. More importantly, the Utes played as smart as anyone in the nation.
While Duke made a slew of the puzzling mistakes you’d expect out of a team comprised largely of freshmen, Utah looked like a well-coached machine behind Larry Krystkowiak.
All of this led me to jump on Utah immediately. I placed my largest wager of the tournament to that point on Utah plus-5.5 on Monday morning. I would later kick myself when a few stray 6-point spreads surfaced in town on Wednesday, but they disappeared quickly, well before Friday night's tip-off.
The number closed as low as Duke minus-4.5, meaning I had secured closing-line value on my position — the lifeblood of any successful sports gambler. Additionally, it was an easy choice to use Utah plus-5.5 as my pick in Station Casinos’ Last Man Standing contest, which requires bettors to pick one winning side each day of the tournament until only one entry remains and claims the whole prize.
A strong first five tournament days for the house had left only around 50 entries remaining out of the approximately 2,000 who paid the $25 entry fee. The prize was something like $50,000, and despite the still-long odds, I channeled my most internal irrational-gambler mindset and convinced myself I had the inside track.
I was getting through Friday night at least and into the Elite 8 in the contest for the second straight year. Duke wasn’t prepared for what Utah was about to do to them.
Except the Blue Devils were. As I watched the opening 32 minutes at a sports bar, it was clear I was wrong. I departed with Utah trailing 49-34 with 9 minutes to go, feeling confounded but not crushed.
By the time I got home, everything had changed. Utah was only down seven or eight with a clear chance to cover. The Utes eventually cut the lead to five with the ball and 10 seconds to go, and I experienced the emotional swing only sports can provide.
I was ecstatic.
Jordan Loveridge missed a 3-pointer on the Utes’ final possession, but it hardly seemed to matter with no foul called as Cook dribbled out the final seconds through a field of outstretched arms. Nantz’s voice cut through the speaker with a grace he usually reserves for Masters promos.
“They’re going to let it go,” Nantz said calmly before amplifying his voice. “The game is over. The Blue Devils are on to the regional final.”
But just like 11 years before, Nantz knew not what he said. As the “final score” flashed across the screen — Duke 62, Utah 57 — color commentator Bill Rafferty’s raspy response invaded my senses like the most potent of onions he often yelled about.
“I think they’re going to shoot the foul,” Rafferty said as players went through the handshake line. “I think they’re going to make Cook shoot the fouls.”
Sure enough, the officials huddled around the monitor not to review the potential jump ball they may have missed on the rebound with Wright tying up Cook but to confirm a foul on Utah’s Brandon Taylor with .7 seconds left. The Utes were summoned out of the locker room as Cook was instructed to shoot two free throws.
He carelessly chucked the first shot, missing off the rim to put the point-spread decision solely on the second.
I fell off the couch and onto my knees in horror, hardly being able to process what I had just witnessed. Then, in a reflexive manner I still can’t understand, I headed to the gym and ran a couple miles on the treadmill.
I’m generally nonreactive to the breaks and bounces inherent to sports betting, even more so now but I couldn’t help it on that night. It was the worst beat I ever took, and the worst I ever responded.
I’m thankful for it now though. The vast majority of us sports bettors, far more than would freely admit, are doing this for fun, not professionally.
And you can’t know the euphoria the successes of sports betting bring without knowing the misery the setbacks provide.
You can’t fully experience the joy the NCAA Tournament can produce without also encountering the ruins it leaves.