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.
The snazzy ballrooms, monstrous screens, unlimited food and festival-feel of betting are all part of what bring tens of thousands of visitors to town annually for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
They’re not the primary driving factors as much as contributing forces, though. The thing that really sets Las Vegas apart during tournament time is the atmosphere, the wild range of emotions on display that usually even eclipses the fan experience at the host-site arenas.
Taking in the collective betting swings in a giant room is a thrill no matter if you have money on the games or not. Most years, reactions to the constantly changing fortunes ebb and flow like a schizophrenic line graph. Every once in a while, however, they chart more linearly.
The first full day of the 2016 NCAA Tournament is one instance where bettors’ spirits stayed on a steady incline.
There’s a misperception that college basketball bettors show up craving upsets and tense, drawn-out possessions down the stretch when that typically couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, gamblers will jump on board and root for a big underdog or get seduced by the chance of catching a buzzer beater in the final seconds of a game, but for the most part, they want favorites and points. That’s what the majority of people bet anyway, and on Thursday March 17, 2016, those wagers were cashing at an astounding clip.
Favorites went 10-6 against the spread, as well as overs in point totals, and the South Point watch party looked like an ancient Roman Bacchanalia by the end of the night. One 20-something was lounging in a big chair outside the ballroom in a Tony Montana pose puffing a cigar after hitting something absurd like a five-team parlay for $12,000.
These are the types of scenes that play out in Las Vegas when programs like Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and Gonzaga all string together easy wins within a few hours of each other.
Then Newton’s Law struck on the second day of the tournament four years ago.
Bettors started bleeding back some, if not all, of their winnings to casinos on a Friday slate that produced a lot more parity. In the middle of the day, seven straight underdogs covered.
There weren’t even many suspenseful point-spread decisions as a number of the higher-seeded teams pounded their more decorated counterparts.
No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State blasted No. 2 seed and futures favorite Michigan State with 3-pointers in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin and its resident folk hero, Thomas Walkup, hardly ever trailed against No. 3 seed West Virginia. No. 12 seed Hawaii never came close to falling beneath the 6-point spread in an easy win over No. 5 seed California and its highly touted underclassmen.
By the time only three games remained in the round of 64, all to tip off within 15 minutes of each other, the party at South Point had screeched to a halt. Trash piled up on tables as people bailed for the first time in two days. Bar lines became nonexistent. Games’ commentators could finally be heard more clearly than chatter and cheers.
No. 6 seed Notre Dame vs. No. 11 seed Michigan took precedence on the biggest televisions. The game between power programs had more interest and surely bigger betting handle than No. 6 seed Texas vs. No. 11 seed Northern Iowa and No. 8 seed St. Joseph’s vs. No. 9 seed Cincinnati.
But focus started to shift after the Irish shook off a rough start and came back to secure a relatively nondescript 70-63 win as 3-point favorites. The other two games were shaping up as potential classics.
The Longhorns and the Panthers had each gone on prolonged runs earlier in the game, and were now going toe-to-toe down the stretch. Neither team ever led by more than two points for the final eight minutes, and overtime appeared imminent after Texas’ Isaiah Thomas converted on a driving layup with 2.7 seconds left.
But then Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson did what Gordon Hayward couldn’t do, and banked in a halfcourt game-winner at the buzzer.
Those who weren’t jumping out of their chairs at the South Point were falling out of them or dropping their jaws. The place had gone for dead-quiet to deafening-loud in short order, and the fun wasn’t over.
Cincinnati and St. Joe’s were engaged in the same type of game with a few minutes still left on the clock. Current NBA role players Deandre’ Bembry and Jacob Evans were taking over for the Hawks and Bearcats, respectively.
Bettors turned to fans and sat on the edge of their seats hoping to get another memorable finish. And they got it, with an ending harder to process than Jesperson’s halfcourt heave.
The Hawks’ Isaiah Miles hit a 3-pointer with 7 seconds to put St. Joe’s up 78-76, and Cincinnati rushed down the court with Octavius Ellis throwing in a dunk to send the game to overtime.
At least that’s what the scoreboard said — until the officials waved off the basket. After consulting the replay monitors, the referees determined Ellis’ fingertips were still on the ball as the horn sounded.
Bearcats players crumbled to the floor in Spokane, Wash., but bettors were buzzing in Las Vegas even as they filtered out of a room that was practically dead a couple hours earlier.
I can’t remember if I bet either game. A bit of digging through the Las Vegas Sun archives reveals I picked both losers, Texas minus-4 and Cincinnati minus-1.5, and likely bet at least the former.
In hindsight, it really didn’t matter anyway. If you’re betting responsibly, losing a wager or two shouldn’t be fatal.
Heck, if it the losses were a tax for enjoying the ride of the NCAAA Tournament in Las Vegas, then they were well worth it.
In the past, it may have been easy to lose sight of what a privilege and joy it was to experience March Madness in the ideal setting locally. That should never be an issue again, not after losing the opportunity this year and dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
Much like the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the 2021 edition will be one for the ages in Las Vegas.