Las Vegas Review-Journal betting reporter Todd Dewey will be writing a live betting blog Thursday on the first day of the NCAA Tournament from a seat inside the Westgate sports book.
5:30 p.m. — The books lost on Middle Tennessee State, seemingly everybody’s pick to pull off a 12-5 upset, but it wasn’t an upset against the spread as the Blue Raiders closed as 1½-point favorites over Minnesota in a 81-72 win. The Golden Gophers, who opened as 1-point favorites, cut a 17-point second-half deficit to 4 before faltering.
“There was big betting on Middle Tennessee State,” Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “That was a game that everybody loved.”
However, heading into the night games, Westgate sports book manager Ed Salmons said it was a winning day for the house.
“With eight games in the morning and afternoon, the way the system sets up, it’s almost impossible not to be ahead,” he said. “But then as the games start to reduce, there’s more liability.”
Salmons said the best result for the book was Princeton covering against Notre Dame, which was favored by as many as 7 and as low as 5½. The Tigers missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of their 60-58 loss.
“It was a big game for us, but if Princeton had made that basket and won outright, it would’ve been a monster game for us,” he said. “There was a lot of Notre Dame money-line action. The sharps were definitely on the ‘dog but the public was all over Notre Dame.”
Bettors lost on Gonzaga, a big favorite which didn’t cover a spread that opened at 22½ and closed at 23½ in a 66-46 win over South Dakota State. While guests in the Westgate theater erupted at the end of the game as the Bulldogs dribbled out the clock, Salmons said the crowd in the sports book was pulling for Gonzaga.
“Down there, they were rooting for the ‘dog, but in this room when they were dribbling out the clock, what you heard is, ‘Shoot! Shoot!’” he said. “They were laying hard with Gonzaga. A lot of money, which was surprising, because on really big favorites, they’ll usually back the dog.”
There also was a lot of action on East Tennessee State against Florida, which closed as a 9½-point favorite after opening at 10½. The Gators led by 1 at halftime before pulling away for an 80-65 win and cover.
“It’s weird. Some of these ‘dog teams. There was a lot of money on East Tennessee State,” Salmons said. “(The public) definitely plays more ‘dogs in basketball than on the NFL. In the NFL, they don’t want any ‘dogs unless it’s the Packers.”
Salmons said most of the money is on Iowa State as a 6-point favorite over UNR in their 12-5 matchup, going on now.
“(UNR) is just so hard to judge,” he said. “They play in such a bad (Mountain West) conference. They haven’t really played any competition. It’s really hard to gauge how they are.”
1:52 p.m. — There were several only-in-Las Vegas moments at the Westgate on Thursday afternoon, where bettors screamed for Winthrop’s Roderick Perkins to take a 3-pointer on a last-second breakaway instead of driving for an easy dunk. Neither shot would’ve given the Eagles the win over favored Butler, but a 3-pointer would’ve helped Winthrop push the 11-point spread. Perkins, who missed a free throw that would’ve cut the deficit to 13 with 34 seconds left, grabbed a rebound with nine seconds left and took it to the hoop for a dunk as the Bulldogs won and covered, 76-64, dealing Eagles bettors a loss.
Winthrop went on a 7-0 run in the second half to cut a 14-point halftime deficit to seven before Butler extended its lead to 19.
Also, many in the Westgate theater crowd of about 1,500 rose for a standing ovation as Gonzaga, a 22½-point favorite, dribbled out the clock in its 66-46 victory to ensure a cover by South Dakota State.
The No. 16 seed Jackrabbits led for the first 17 minutes of the game but the top-seeded Bulldogs built their lead to 22 on a 3-pointer by Jordan Mathews with 1:21 left. Ian Theisen made a layup to cut the deficit to 20 with 1:01 to go. Jeremy Jones grabbed a defensive rebound for Gonzaga with 20 seconds left and it ran out the clock.
The crowd in the sports book, which has 400 seats, also reacted late in the first half of West Virginia’s 86-80 win over Bucknell. The Bison easily covered as 13½-point underdogs but burned bettors who backed them in the first half as 7½-point ‘dogs. Bucknell trailed 36-33 before going scoreless in the final 4:15 of the first half.
The Bison, trailing 40-33, appeared to be holding the ball for the last shot of the half but Nate Jones missed a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left and the Mountaineers’ Lamont West made a layup with two seconds left for a 42-33 halftime lead.
Favorites are 2-4 ATS through the first six games.
11:55 a.m. — A pair of 12-5 matchups elicited cheers and groans Thursday morning from a standing-room-only crowd at the Westgate sports book, where bettors began staking out their seats at 4 a.m. There’s been a steady stream of people waiting in line to place wagers on the tournament since the book opened at 7 a.m. There is a much shorter line open for mobile app sign-ups.
Notre Dame, a 6½-point favorite, narrowly escaped becoming the latest 5-seed to lose in the first round as they escaped with a 60-58 win over Princeton. Devin Cannady missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer for the Tigers with seven seconds left that glanced off the side of the rim as bettors bemoaned a missed chance at an upset and cashing money-line tickets on Princeton at plus-250.
The Irish led by 11 in the second half but the Tigers pulled within 1 on a 3-pointer by Steven Cook with 3:22 left and closed to 59-58 on a tip-in by Pete Miller with 19 seconds left. Notre Dame leads the nation in free-throw percentage, but Matt Farrell missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 11 seconds to go to give Princeton a chance to win it.
The crowd erupted for the first time Thursday morning when UNC Wilmington guard Ambrose Mosley hit his third 3-pointer of the first half to give the Seahawks an early 23-11 lead over Virginia, a 7½-point favorite. Wilmington extended its lead to 28-14 when I mentioned to Review-Journal reporter Adam Hill that I had the underdog as one of my best bets Thursday. The Cavaliers promptly went on a 16-1 run to take a 30-29 halftime lead.
Fortunately, I didn’t jinx the Seahawks, who fell behind by 10 in the second half before rallying for the cover in a 76-71 loss.
Marial Shayok hit a jumper to put Virginia ahead 75-71 with 26 seconds left and Wilmington then turned it over, opening the door for a bad beat. But London Perrantes, who scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half, missed the second of two free throws to cheers from bettors as the Cavs went ahead 76-71 with 14 seconds left. After a miss by Wilmington, Darius Thompson missed a free throw for Virginia with four seconds left, eliciting the loudest cheer of the day from Seahawks backers, some of whom had the closing number of 7.
5:42 a.m. — I woke up at 5 a.m. after four hours of sleep eagerly anticipating the glorious first day of the NCAA Tournament, which I’ll experience in the middle of a standing-room-only crowd at the Westgate sports book, the epicenter of Vegas Madness.
I also feel a bit of trepidation about being on a bevy of underdogs in the first round, at least against the spread. I put on a pot of coffee and give my dog a treat while hoping the ‘dogs treat bettors right Thursday.
Will UNC Wilmington, Winthrop and/or East Tennessee State play giant killer? Will Princeton produce an early knockout of Notre Dame, my 80-1 long-shot pick to win it all?
We’ll soon find out.
Wagering update: There are 16 games Thursday. The Fighting Irish are a 6½-point favorite over the Tigers in the 9:15 a.m. opener.
I’m on No. 12 UNC-Wilmington — which is getting 7½ points from No. 5 Virginia in the 9:40 a.m. game — and No. 13 Winthrop, an 11-point ‘dog to No. 4 Butler at 10:30 a.m.
No. 1 Gonzaga is favored by 22½ points over No. 16 South Dakota State at 11 a.m. A 16-seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the tournament, but No. 16 seeds are 10-6 ATS the last four years.
Best Bets: UNC-Wilmington (+7½) over Virginia: The high-flying Seahawks average 85.2 points per game, good for 10th in the nation, and have a shot at pulling off the outright upset win as a 12-seed. At least one No. 12 seed has beaten a No. 5 seed in 28 of the last 32 years. It’s a complete contrast in styles as Virginia is a defensive-minded team that prefers a slower pace, but the Cavaliers can struggle to score and Wilmington should do enough to cover the number.
Florida Gulf Coast (+12) over Florida State: This edition of Dunk City might be better than the team that advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2013. The high-flying Eagles are playing close to home in Orlando and should keep it close, if not pull off the outright upset as a 14-seed. Florida State has struggled in games not played in Tallahassee this season.
Other plays today: East Tennessee State (+10½) over Florida; Winthrop (+11) over Butler; Vermont (+10) over Purdue.
(This betting blog will be updated throughout the day).