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Basketball Bedlam

For many hard-core college basketball fans, March Madness is a sure bet
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

Ted Hume is a mild-mannered dentist based in Dallas, Texas. While he ordinarily exudes a calm,professional demeanor, his voice becomes hoarse and he gets excited when he talks about March Madness, the string of 64 NCAA championship basketball games that begin this month.

Hume has viewed hundreds of suspenseful and thrilling games from his perch at the sports book at Bally’s in Las Vegas. But the one nail-biter that sticks in his mind was between Valparaiso University and Mississippi in 1998. After Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew landed a last-second three-pointer allowing the small Midwestern college, and that year’s Cinderella team, to beat favored Mississippi, 70 to 69, Hume says, “The casino went completely wild. People were standing on tables and screaming their hearts out. It was amazing.”

Hume is just one of the thousands of hard-core college basketball lovers who each year flock to Vegas for the opening games of March

Madness, which this year begins on March 18. These diehards camp out in casino sports books and spend the second or third long weekend in March watching dozens of games, gambling on most of them and having a generally wild time. “Emotions run so high that it’s almost like being at the game. Plus, of course, the gambling is great—I’ll bet on three-quarters of the matchups,” Hume says, adding that attending the opening weekend in Vegas is an annual rite for him and a group of equally obsessed friends.

This is not the sort of fervent fandom that one usually associates with grown men watching college basketball on TV, but the match-ups that define March Madness, a single-elimination tournament that concludes with the two winningest teams squaring off for the NCAA championship, are not your ordinary basketball competitions. “It’s bedlam, absolute bedlam here during those games,” says Robert Walker, race and sports book director at Vegas’s MGM Mirage. “The sports books are packed to the rafters. You have a clientele in here that wants to bet $50 on every single game”—the point being that individual wagers may not be huge, but cumulatively they add up—“More bets are made over the course of that first March Madness weekend than on the Super Bowl. Admittedly, the Super Bowl is huge, but this is like Mardi Gras”—complete with free drinks.

An extra level of intensity arises from the single elimination aspect. Lose one game and a team is out of the tournament; keep winning and your previously unknown, backwater school suddenly snags banner headlines on sports pages across the country.

While it is widely acknowledged that college basketball teams play particularly hard in general, March Madness ups the ante because for most players, it’s their only chance to play hoops on national TV. “You get very pure results in these games,” says Alan Boston, a veteran Vegas-based professional gambler who specializes in handicapping NCAA basketball.

Intensely wired and completely plugged into the game, Boston juts his shaved head forward and adds, “These guys play hard every second of every minute because it’s so important to win.” While that makes for exciting games of heartfelt, do-or-die ball, it does
something more important for seasoned gamblers: “You can benefit by ways of thinking that are not in the line,” says Boston. “For instance, superior coaching often wins in the first round because every team has had many days to prepare for its first game.”

Asked for a real-life example of this, Boston recalls a West Region matchup between Colorado State and Duke last year: “Despite what people think, [Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski is the most overrated coach of our time—of any time. His team takes bad shots, and you cannot take bad shots in an NCAA tournament because the other team will be ready for you. Duke totally outmanned Colorado State, but Colorado State played a lot smarter. Duke won but failed to cover the point spread. It was a typical first-round game with a very well coached underdog pulling a big upset.”

As you can tell by the way Boston describes this game’s outcome, the actual score is meaningless to Vegas’s March Madness gambling fanatics. For them, the spread is everything—the final score is important only as the basis for who actually covered or didn’t.

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