Sharps waste little time attacking opening lines

Quick turnaround stories always make great material for the media. Not long ago, Indiana was in the college basketball dumpster, but then came Cody Zeller, a 6-foot-11-inch freshman with NBA skills, and everything changed.

The Hoosiers finally arrived in December by knocking off Kentucky on a last-second shot, delirious fans stormed the court, and ESPN showed the replay about a million times.

New Mexico State followed no such fairy-tale script. The Aggies won the Western Athletic Conference tournament before a tiny gathering at Orleans Arena late Saturday, far from the national spotlight.

The media loves the Hoosiers’ comeback story in the Big Ten. But the sharpest bettors, the sharks who were circling around the opening lines for NCAA Tournament games Sunday night, only care about the value in numbers.

"We put the numbers up on the board, and some guys have a couple of games in mind they want to bet and they’re right there ready to go," Wynn Las Vegas sports book director John Avello said. "The first bet came in on New Mexico State. We took a couple of pops on that one."

Avello was the first in Las Vegas to post lines. His went up at 6 p.m., shortly after an offshore book or two opened for business. The wagering limit at Wynn was $2,000, and the action came fast.

Aside from the Super Bowl, this is the best week of the year at the books, and I’ll argue this week is better because there are so many more games, from early morning to late night Thursday through Sunday.

"I really enjoy it. It’s one of the favorite weeks not only for the bookmakers but for the customers, too," Avello said. "But the first four days are so trying. It’s a weekend when we certainly put our time in, and we’re worn out by the end of it."

Public money will be riding on the favorites, but wiseguys look first for underdogs, and there are several that appear attractive.

Most people probably have no idea how to pronounce his last name, but keep an eye on New Mexico State’s Wendell McKines, a 6-6 senior forward who can jump and has a good jump shot. He averages 18.8 points and 10.8 rebounds for an athletic Aggies team that can run and made a serious first-round run at Michigan State two years ago.

Zeller is a tough matchup for anyone, but the Hoosiers will have their hands full on Thursday at Portland, Ore. Avello opened the line 7½, and it dropped to 7 and 6½. New Mexico State is one of many live ‘dogs.

"I really like Belmont and Harvard as teams I think could make noise," said Ken White, an analyst for DonBest.com and a former Las Vegas Sports Consultants oddsmaker.

Belmont is seeded 14th but is only a 3½-point underdog against Georgetown. But the line opened at 6½, so the value has been sucked out of the number. Harvard, a No. 12 seed, is a 6½-point underdog to Vanderbilt.

White will post his picks for KLAS-TV (8) as part of a bracket challenge on 8newsnow.com. I encourage everyone to enter as many bracket contests as possible because they are low risk and high on entertainment and potential reward.

Another popular ‘dog play will be Long Beach State, which is getting 4½ points against Mountain West Conference champ New Mexico. I’m guessing coach Steve Alford is upset with what White called a "really tough draw" for the Lobos.

"I think that’s a bad matchup for New Mexico. Long Beach has already played with the big boys," White said.

UNLV got a far more favorable draw and is a 4½-point favorite over Colorado at Albuquerque, N.M. Still, the Rebels have not won away from home since Jan. 28.

"I was thinking a little lower, maybe 3½ or 4. But I felt UNLV would be more comfortable in The Pit," Avello said. "Let’s see what the Rebels are made of. There was no team in the Pac-12 that was really that good.

"If you go back four or five weeks ago, I was thinking if this UNLV team put it all together, it could make the Final Four. I’m not thinking that way now. But the Rebels just came off a very disappointing tournament, and they’re going to be hungry and ready to play."

White said he "loves the matchup" of Saint Mary’s and Purdue, which was hot late behind the play of senior star Robbie Hummel. White also pointed to Creighton-Alabama, Wichita State-Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia-Florida and Colorado State-Murray State as headliners.

The NCAA selection committee did a decent job this year, but as usual it did Mike Krzyzewski a favor by putting Duke close to home in Greensboro, N.C.

White said, "Duke has got it made," and it’s obvious that some things never change.

■ BOTTOM LINES — A few NCAA Tournament contests are being offered by Las Vegas sports books, with the Riviera staging the most intriguing. The "March $1,000,000 Tournament Challenge" pays back 100 percent of entry fees, and a potential $1 million prize pool — which is highly unlikely — is based on 10,000 entrants at $100 each. We’ll see how popular it is, but I like the idea.

Contestants select sides and totals listed on a daily contest sheet and must make 64 picks (48 sides, 16 totals) for the first four days of the tournament. The registration deadline is 8 a.m. Thursday. The winners will be announced Sunday.

There are two contests with a $25 entry fee, the Leroy’s "Three ‘n Out" and Station Casinos’ "Last Man Standing."

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the "Las Vegas Sportsline" weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

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