March Madness betting memories: Kansas vs. Northern Iowa and the worst watch party

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The Northern Iowa bench runs onto the court after their 69-67 win over Kansas in an NCAA second-round college basketball game, Saturday, March 20, 2010, in Oklahoma City. Northern Iowa upset top overall seed Kansas.

Thu, Mar 19, 2020 (2 a.m.)

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.

Exiting the International Theater at the Westgate Las Vegas onto the casino floor midday is a shock to the senses.

If you watch a game or two on the movie-theater-sized center-staged screen at the property’s annual party during the NCAA Tournament, you become accustomed to the environment. The 1,600-capacity room is dimly lit with the only noise coming from a sound system tuned to a moderate level and the occasional roars from the crowd.

Just outside the plush doors is the usual casino-floor chaos with slot machine jingles clashing with clapping from the craps table, and a hint of natural light from the lobby bleeding into chandeliers’ artificial gleam. If you haven’t left the theater for a while, it’s blindingly bright, the exact opposite of how I felt in the late afternoon/early evening of March 20, 2010.

I had spent a couple hours immersed in the Kansas vs. Northern Iowa game and was feeling the after-effects. The No. 9 seeded Panthers’ famous 69-67 upset of the overall No. 1 seed Jayhawks was the worst loss I’ve ever suffered as a fan.

I was wholly unprepared to face reality, let alone the few drunken fans who couldn’t help but make comments on my all-Kansas attire as I plodded from the theater to the SuperBook with my head down.

This is less of a betting story and more of a Las Vegas story, or a dejection story, because I had no bet on the game. It’s easy to say now that Northern Iowa shouldn’t have been an 11-point underdog, but even with that knowledge then, I wouldn’t have bet against Kansas.

That’s changed over the years. Let’s say hypothetically this year’s tournament happened and Kansas faced Houston in the round of 32, as ESPN’s final bracketology implied, as something like a 9-point favorite.

I only make the number 6.5, so I would have showed no hesitation to bet against my alma mater and on the Cougars. It wasn’t that way 10 years ago.

After having covered the team as a student the two previous years and therefore forfeiting my fandom, I was all-in on the Jayhawks in my first-year post-graduation. And what a season it turned out to be all-in on.

Some now regard the 2010 team as marginally overrated, but that reeks of revisionist history.

The Jayhawks went 33-3 and entered the tournament as the favorite in the futures market at as low as plus-175 (risking $1 to win $1.75), the shortest pre-tournament number of Bill Self’s 17 seasons with the program. Kansas was poised to become the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s canceled tournament and the prohibitive favorite again, but at odds more than twice as high as the 2010 price.

The 2010 team was also the second-most efficient of Self’s tenure by Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, behind only the 2008 national champions.

Anything outside a Final Four appearance was practically inconceivable — until the second-round game with Northern Iowa started. Panthers sharpshooter Ali Farokmanesh was already being cursed locally for knocking UNLV out in the first round with a barrage of 3-pointers, and he had maintained his rhythm into the Kansas game.

Not only was he hitting shots against the Jayhawks, but he was also somehow out-styling a roster full of future NBA players with moves like a behind-the-back assist and a hesitation crossover. As watch parties tend to be when an underdog takes control early, the International Theater was silent aside from gasps every now and again.

The majority of bettors were as confident in the Jayhawks as I was, and they had the wagers to show for it. Those tickets, of course, could have safely been thrown in the trash at halftime.

Despite coming back from as much as an 11-point deficit in the second half, Kansas never led. The Jayhawks’ fate was sealed when Farokmanesh pulled up for a transition 3 with 34 seconds remaining that is now forever embedded in any March Madness highlight package.

The International Theater exploded — when it becomes clear a favorite won’t cover, everyone starts rooting for the underdog — and I sunk in my chair near the front of the venue.

I’ve never felt that heartbroken about a sports loss as a fan before, and I doubt I’ll ever feel that heartbroken again.

Many Kansas fans consider the upset tournament loss the following year — once again as an 11 point favorite, this time to VCU in the Elite 8 — as harder to swallow. It’s not even close for me.

By then, I was taking betting, and writing about betting, more seriously. It had started to replace being a fan as my primary tournament draw, a transformation that’s only intensified over the years.

“Do I miss it,” is the obvious follow-up question. And the honest answer would have to be, “not really.”

Not when I reflect on a fine day ruined at the Westgate. Swallowing the Northern Iowa upset was much tougher than losing any bet.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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