Last year, for the second year in a row, I went to Las Vegas for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Since turning 21 in the summer of 2007, it was my fourth visit to Sin City. This was my best trip yet, thanks in part to what was arguably the wildest opening weekend in the history of the Tournament. Some of this “diary” will likely make more sense to those who are familiar with Vegas and sports betting, but feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me if you have any questions. Anyway, to get you excited for the start of this year’s madness, here’s what transpired on the first day of the 2010 Tournament…
Thursday, March 18
6:00 a.m. PDT My flight from New York’s JFK airport the previous night got me to Vegas with enough time to enjoy some St. Patrick’s Day festivities at O’Shea’s, a bar that must live for St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t party all that hard, but I still wasn’t feeling great when I woke up. To my body, 6 a.m. should feel like 9 a.m., but keep in mind that I don’t like waking up at 9 either. Given that this is my favorite weekend of the year though, I’m not complaining.
7:20 a.m. We have showered (there were five of us in the room), dressed, and walked to Planet Hollywood from Bally’s. You see, like last year, we were supposed to watch the games at the Paris auditorium. One problem, two words: Barry Manilow. Apparently, Manilow was booked at the last minute for a few shows this weekend. Paris was no longer an option, and five guys who previously didn’t have any feelings towards the “Mandy” singer suddenly hated him. Luckily, Planet Hollywood was offering what seemed like a similar venue. We figured we’d try it out on Thursday and go somewhere else on Friday if need be.
8:00 a.m. Saying unprintable things about Barry Manilow on our walk to PH, once we arrive we are fairly satisfied. We took the escalator up to the second floor, where PH’s nightclub (Prive) and show (Peepshow starring Holly Madison!) are located. We pass under the large banner that reads “Welcome to the Madness” and enter the viewing area. It is a sight for sore (and bloodshot) eyes.
There is a viewing area on each side, both with four large projection screens. The screens on each side are linked, so whatever is being shown on screen #1 on one side is being shown on screen #1 on the other side. Right now it’s ESPN on screens 1 and 2, ESPN2 on screen 3, and ESPN News on screen 4. We take a seat on what I’ll call the north side and I quickly discover that the seatbacks recline; nice touch. It’s not stadium-style seating, but other than that it’s just as good as the Paris auditorium. Suck it, Manilow.
8:15 a.m. Taking shifts to make sure we don’t lose our seats, it is my turn to place bets. There are betting windows set up just to the side of the viewing area, but the line is very long. We take our chances at the actual PH sportsbook. Good decision; the line is much shorter. I’m next in line when I hear the guy in front of me calling out his bets: “Twenty-two on five-fifteen. Fifty-five on five-eighteen.” Uh oh. It’s been a while since I bet with a human being. I forget I can’t just say “Ten bucks on Butler, please.” I let three people cut me in line as I frantically match up my teams with their betting numbers. Feeling like an amateur, I finally step up and place my bets: a couple of straight wagers and three moneyline parlays that all pay about even money. I’m no sharp, but I’m a few steps ahead of another guy in line, who asks his friend, “So if it’s minus four-and-a-half, they need to win by more than four, right?” He’s right, but just the fact that he had to ask is a bad sign.
9:05 a.m. The anticipation has been building since I took my seat in the auditorium. ESPN is still on all of the screens. The crowd is getting restless. We want our CBS!
9:06 a.m. Greg Gumbel appears and the crowd gives him a hearty applause. The crowd, by the way, is nearly all male and all white. The age range is probably 21-65, but it’s mostly late 20- and early 30-year-olds. I stand up and do a 360 and see a total of two women. There are a bunch of school t-shirts and hats, from Duke to Syracuse to Michigan State. Not as much North Carolina as last year.
9:19 a.m. Before the first game even tips, we get our first Masters commercial. Having attended March Madness in Vegas last year, I know this is something worth noting.
9:20 a.m. More cheers as the first game of the 2010 Tournament—BYU vs Florida—tips. One minute later, BYU’s Tyler Haws gets the Tourney’s first basket.
9:26 a.m. The game between Notre Dame, the alma mater of the four other people in my group, and Old Dominion tips. In my group, a lot of money is riding on the Irish, a six seed, to cover the two-point spread or at least win outright. Six minutes later, No. 2 seed Villanova begins its game with Robert Morris.
9:50 a.m. I crack open my first beer of the day just moments before the second Masters commercial of the morning. Per the tradition that outdates my Vegas visits, our group rises and toasts the“tradition unlike any other,” and now that we have drinks, we can do so properly. We get some strange looks from fellow viewers.
10:01 a.m. My body convulses as all three games have gone to television timeouts.
10:07 a.m. The first losing bets of the Tournament are crumpled and thrown to the floor. BYU, a 2.5-point favorite in the first half, only leads by two at the break. Meanwhile, the 15 seed Robert Morris is leading ’Nova and ND/ODU is very close.
10:40 a.m. Another scoop layup for BYU’s star Jimmer Fredette, from Glens Falls, N.Y. I stayed away from the Cougars in this game, but have them in the Final Four in my bracket. They’re in a tight game with Florida, which makes me nervous, but not nearly as nervous as Danny, a friend of ours who bet big on Notre Dame and really, really big on BYU. Rather than sit down, he is pacing back and forth in the aisle.
11: 09 a.m. ND hits a three-pointer, Robert Morris does the same, and Florida gets an and-one bucket. I’ve got ND in my bracket but didn’t bet on them. I figured the game was a toss-up and only took the Irish out of fear. If someone in my group saw me rooting for ODU, I’m not sure I would have made it to the second set of games.
11:20 a.m. Carlton Scott’s three goes halfway down before popping out, and Luke Harangody’s second basket of the day comes on a meaningless layup at the buzzer, as ND loses by one. It feels like the life has been sucked out of the group. I’m afraid to move. Just a moment later, I hold my breath as Florida’s last-second shot misses, sending the game to overtime. I’m already down for one ‘X’ on my bracket, I don’t need another four so soon.
11:27 a.m. Only a couple of people were aware of this, but before the trip a hat was customized and purchased. There’s no sense in getting into the specifics of the hat, but I will say it is a pink trucker’s hat. Whichever person in the group was acting like an idiot had to wear the hat. Although everyone seemed to have bet on ND (except me), my brother wound up with the hat after the Irish lost.
11:32 a.m. Robert Morris is up eight at the final media timeout. Vanderbilt and supposed “giant killer” Murray State tip. I went back and forth in my bracket, but took Vandy.
11:39 a.m. Again it is Florida with the final shot, but again it is off line. We’re going to double overtime!
11: 42 a.m. Fredette draws a foul and waves directly into the courtside camera as he gets up. Was he waving at me for having put his team in the Final Four? At the guy who bet more than my paycheck on the Cougs? Who cares, as long as BYU is winning.
11: 48 a.m. Both wild games—BYU/Florida and Robert Morris/’Nova—go to commercial, which gives me a chance to catch my breath. The outcome of both of these games is still in doubt, but BYU is looking promising.
11:51 a.m. Overtime for Villanova!
11:54 a.m. The crowd groans as the TV showing the BYU game switches to Baylor/Sam Houston State. It is clear BYU will win, but bettors want to be sure they cover the spread, which was anywhere between 4.5-5.5 points. They’ll have to settle for the real-time updates provided in the box in the upper-left corner of another CBS feed.
12:15 p.m. BYU did in fact cover, and nobody is happier about it than Danny, the big BYU bettor. He jumps up and down like he’s on a pogo stick. Jay Bilas would say he has great jumpability. Meanwhile, Robert Morris loses by three in OT, ending an unbelievably awesome opening trio of games. Here are the numbers to prove it: three overtime periods, five shots that could have won or extended the game on the final possession (two for Florida, one each for ’Nova, Robert Morris, and ND), and two games decided by three points or less (BYU won by seven).
12:33 p.m. As the results start to sink in, I say to a friend, “I feel like I’ve watched a weekend’s worth of games already.” His response? “I feel like I’ve drank a weekend’s worth of beers already.” Welcome to March Madness in Vegas.
12:57 p.m. Kansas State, which would be BYU’s next opponent, gets off to a slow start, making me feel better about the Cougars’ chance of an upset. Vanderbilt, which was trailing Murray St., is starting to come back. What could be an interesting 7/10 match-up, St. Mary’s vs. Richmond, has tipped, but it’s not on any of the four TVs. What gives?!
1:04 p.m. Some of the fans start to get agitated that the SMC/Richmond game isn’t on, and it seems to have an effect. The TV operator is at least attempting to change the channel, but an error message from DirecTV is displayed: “You do not have access to this game. You must purchase it.” “Make the purchase!” my brother yells. “You can afford it after my Notre Dame bet!”
1:42 p.m. Murray State, down one, with the final shot…GOOD! I can’t fault myself for taking Vandy in my bracket, but I at least could have made some money by taking the Racers and the four points they were getting. But that was a great ending regardless. The first four games of the 2010 NCAA Tournament have all been incredible. Although we’ve had some lopsided match-ups as far as seeds, the four games have been decided by an average of three points. An 11 seed (ODU) and a 13 seed (Murray) have both advanced. Four games like this would be pretty good for an entire first round. To get them all on one day, in the first few hours of the Tournament—unreal.
1:52 p.m. Fans are yelling “FOUL!” in the waning seconds of the Baylor/Sam Houston State game. These bettors must have the “over,” but facing a nine-point deficit Sam Houston sees no reason to extend the game any further. These bettors throw their tickets to the floor.
2:13 p.m. Butler/UTEP tip off. UTEP, a 12 seed, is a trendy upset pick, as they have a big-time scorer on the perimeter as well as former Louisville forward Derrick Caracter. I don’t see it happening, as I have Butler all the way to the Elite 8. I nearly lost another Elite 8 team earlier in the morning though, so who knows.
2:32 p.m. Uh oh. Butler/UTEP looks likes boys vs. men, and unfortunately for me, the Bulldogs are the boys. UTEP is getting steals, grabbing offensive rebounds, and scoring inside at will.
4:11 p.m. That first half of the Butler game seems like days ago. The Bulldogs use a 19-2 run in the second half, aided by a barrage of three-pointers, to take a commanding lead in the final minutes. My second Elite 8 teams in the West Region is safe for now. Meanwhile, Northern Iowa and UNLV tip. I bet on UNI and despite being in Vegas, I’m not alone. There’s support for the hometown team, but not as much as there is for the Panthers.
4:25 p.m. Georgetown and Ohio tip. We are wondering why a moneyline was offered for this game, considering Ohio, a 14 seed, made a miraculous run in its conference tournament just to qualify for the Big Dance.
5:14 p.m. Ohio is up 12 at halftime and we wonder why we didn’t put ten bucks on the Ohio moneyline. On my way to the bathroom I notice a group of a dozen or so men in a small conference room in the hallway adjacent to the viewing area. One of them is standing near a projection screen showing PowerPoint slides, while the others sit at a long table with blank looks on their faces. I feel bad for them.
5:50 p.m. It is clear that Georgetown is going to lose. The Hoyas are getting absolutely manhandled. Disgruntled bettors start mumbling about how “the Big East sucks.”
6:25 p.m. Ali Farokhmanesh hits a deep, deep three to win it for UNI, as the Planet Hollywood crowd erupts. Others in my group bet the Panthers as well, so it’s a bit of a bounce back after ND’s crushing loss.
8:58 p.m. After walking down the strip a few blocks to get some food—stopping at every TV set along the way to check scores—we return to our hotel room to watch the final minutes of the Texas/Wake Forest, Tennessee/San Diego State, and New Mexico/Montana games, all of which are still in doubt. It looks like the day is going to finish similar to how it began—with a trio of tight games.
I have New Mexico in a moneyline parlay and Wake and SD State in my brackets, though each only going one round. In the end, I get two out of three, as SD St. comes up a bit short, but Wake wins a miraculous game on a buzzer-beater in overtime. It is already the third overtime game of the Tourney, exceeding the total number of OT games from last year’s Dance! Just a few minutes shy of 10 p.m., New Mexico pulls out a closer-than-expected victory. That’s over 12 straight hours of college hoops, but I’m already anxious to do it again tomorrow.