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 2 in our week-long series.
Duke is like the world’s most elaborate maze when it comes to the NCAA Tournament — you just can’t escape it.
The Blue Devils hold none of the most coveted overall tournament records — they’re fifth in total appearances, third in consecutive appearances and fourth in both Final Fours and national championships — but it sure doesn’t feel that way. To the approximate 99 percent of the college basketball public who loathe the Blue Devils, it annually feels like March Madness is just a vessel to showcase the Durham, N.C., death star of a program.
Allow me using that excuse to explain why, for the second straight day, Duke takes center stage in a continued reminiscence of past NCAA Tournament bets.
Monday's column was all about how the Blue Devils’ last national championship team bled my bankroll. Today is all about how their second-most recent championship team added to it.
I’ve never felt luckier than on April 5, 2010, when Mike Krzyzewski cut down the nets for the fourth time in his career after Duke barely survived Butler in the championship game.
That’s not to say I haven’t won luckier bets than my future ticket on that year’s Duke team — I certainly have — but it was the first of its kind and served with a sense of suspense and relief unique to college basketball.
I’m fairly certain I had never placed a futures bet before. It’s quite possible that the wager I put on the Blue Devils to win it all in between the first two weekends of the tournament was the biggest bet I had ever made period.
It really wasn’t much money — I wagered more on futures this season alone than I won on this bet — but enough to be a little bit of a gamble for a 22-year-old living on intern wages. If it was irresponsible, I blame the lure of Las Vegas during tournament time.
I had traveled here during March Madness on a couple other occasions, but never during the first weekend, which stands alone as a sports-book spectacle. It’s hard not to get drawn in by it all, and I certainly did in 2010.
After four straight days of taking in wall-to-wall action at the then-Las Vegas Hilton’s International Theater watch party — now known as “Hoops Central,” it remains one of the best places in town to catch the games a decade later — I still hadn’t gotten enough. I made a Monday night reservation at Lagasse’s Stadium at the Palazzo — another must-visit that’s stayed open — with plans to fire on some NIT games while eating dinner with my dad.
That mission went by the wayside when I grabbed an updated, “odds to win the national championship,” sheet outside the entrance and couldn’t believe what my eyes saw printed towards the top of the 16 remaining teams.
Duke — 6-to-1.
“That can’t be right,” I thought, but after double-checking the board, I confirmed it was right.
I don’t know if there were better prices elsewhere — I had even less of a clue on sports betting back then than I do now — but I ended up emptying most of my wallet on the Blue Devils.
My reasoning was that two teams were in a class of their own coming into the tournament — Kansas and Duke.
Northern Iowa had just shocked the Jayhawks in the second round, which in my mind meant the Blue Devils stood alone. They should have been 2- or 3-to-1, maximum.
Maybe the Duke dislike was influencing the market as the Blue Devils, as they seemingly do every year, had a couple of universally, if not unfairly reviled players in Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek.
If the next three games were any indication, I was onto something. Duke danced all the way to the championship game with hardly any trouble, setting up a matchup with part-Cinderella, part-juggernaut Butler less than 10 miles from the Bulldogs’ campus in Indianapolis.
It put me in a gambling situation I had never experienced before. Do I hedge, or at least bet Butler plus-7 on the point spread in an attempt to middle, to ensure a profit?
I had no idea how to proceed, so I consulted a small network of friends and scanned Internet message boards only to find advice all over the place. Someone’s wisdom sounded a cut above the rest, advising that there’s no reason to diminish a return on a valuable ticket if you can accept the risk. You should only hedge if you think there’s value on the additional bet.
I didn’t think there was value on Butler plus-7. I was going to let my Duke future ride.
I came to second-guess that decision pretty quickly as the game played out at Butler’s preferred, methodical pace and the score stayed tight. Passing on another opportunity to limit my exposure at halftime, my stomach began to knot up early in the second half with the suspicion that the Bulldogs were going to pull off the win.
Butler star swingman Gordon Hayward had suffered an off-night, and pessimism crept in that it was only a matter of time before he got on track. He never did, but it might not have been any fault of his own.
For Hayward, it was one of those nights where all the breaks and inches fall against you, and it extended into Butler’s final two possessions. With 5 seconds left and his team trailing 60-59, Hayward got a great fadeaway look from the low block but it hit off the far rim.
He would have one more chance, after corralling the rebound on an intentionally missed free-throw from Zoubek and rushing it up the floor. In a moment now locked into NCAA Tournament lore, Hayward flung a halfcourt shot at the buzzer that appeared to be on line.
The ball hit off the middle of the backboard and then the side rim. It went on to bounce out and away from the cylinder to complete a flight path that still causes me to have an instinctual sigh of relief when I watch it 10 years later.
Futures betting is a somewhat polarizing topic in gambling circles. Some say it’s not worthwhile given the typically higher hold percentages and necessity to tie up money for a longer period of time.
I can’t fully buy into that camp because it’s often easier to spot value in the futures markets, and there’s no feeling like cashing one. I learned that with Duke, my first future, along with so much more.
I also learned the fundamentals of the hedging approach I continue to employ today. But perhaps most of all, I learned the important lesson that the luck almost always tends to favor Duke.