As a senior at Cheyenne High School, Elijah Johnson was a standout basketball prospect who seemed destined for the big time. The sign he has arrived? Johnson’s name is in lights on the glowing boards at Las Vegas sports books.
When a player becomes a proposition bet in one of the year’s most significant games, it’s a sign of respect.
Kentucky (37-2) and Kansas (32-6) square off for the national championship at 6 p.m. today in the 67th and final game of an NCAA Tournament that serves as a three-week buffet for sports bettors.
The top-ranked Wildcats are 6- to 6½ -point favorites over the Jayhawks, who might need a star-worthy performance by Johnson to pull an upset in New Orleans.
The odds are stacked against Kansas, according to an opinion poll of two sports book directors and one handicapper.
"I like Kentucky big in this game. I would lay the points," Golden Nugget sports book director Tony Miller said. "I think the Wildcats are head and shoulders above everybody the way they are playing."
En route to the title game, Kentucky routed its first four opponents before failing to cover as an 8½ -point favorite in a 69-61 victory over Louisville in a Saturday semifinal.
The Jayhawks were 3-point underdogs in a 64-62 comeback victory over Ohio State, which attracted the majority of the money from the betting public and wiseguys.
Cantor Gaming sports book director Mike Colbert said he thought the Buckeyes had a better shot at taking down the Wildcats.
"I think it’s a dream matchup for Kentucky. In my opinion, Kansas is a bit of a fraud," Colbert said. "Ohio State would have presented a much bigger problem. If Kentucky just plays its game, it will win by double digits."
A die-hard underdog bettor, handicapper Chuck Edel (SportsXRadio.com) is switching sides and playing the favorite.
"The Wildcats match up well at all positions," Edel said. "I see Kentucky getting a lot of transition baskets. Ohio State lost because of a scoring drought, but I don’t see that happening with Kentucky, which is a more athletic team."
While both Saturday games were low scoring and went under the total, Miller said he expects a high-speed chase between Kentucky and Kansas to go over the total of 137½ .
"I think it’s going to be an up-and-down game with a lot of running and the teams will put up a lot of points," Miller said.
The buildup to last year’s NCAA championship game resulted in a major letdown. Connecticut, a 3½-point favorite, beat Butler 53-41 in an aesthetic disaster equivalent to a 20-car pileup at rush hour. The underdog Bulldogs brought the movie "Hoosiers" to life, but the game failed to follow a Hollywood script.
This time, there is no David-and-Goliath or Good-versus-Evil theme. Kentucky and Kansas are the winningest programs in college basketball history.
The Wildcats are minus-300 on the money line (bet $300 to win $100) to win straight up, with the Jayhawks at plus-250. Envisioning a Kansas win is not an impossible dream.
"I would consider it just a mild upset at most. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it happened," said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of operations for Lucky’s sports books. "Kentucky is a very, very good team. The coaching is a push, and you might give a small edge to the Kentucky kids on ability, but it’s microscopic as far as I’m concerned."
This has the feel of a big event. The LVH, like most other sports books, unveiled an extensive menu of prop bets Sunday.
Johnson, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds against Ohio State, is the subject of two props. The junior guard’s total for points is set at 11, and his total for made free throws is 1½ (over plus-175).
Anthony Davis, Kentucky’s star freshman, has props for total points (16) and rebounds (10½). He was dominant against Louisville with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
The more props, the more important the game. But this is not the NFL, and this game does not generate the level of betting lunacy that always surrounds the Super Bowl.
"The turnout will be good, but it won’t be crazy. This will be like a decent ‘Monday Night Football’ game," Vaccaro said. "It will be like Jacksonville playing the New York Jets, but nothing like the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants."
But for Johnson, who is finally getting his props, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at 702-387-2907 or email@example.com. He co-hosts "The Las Vegas Sportsline" weekdays at 3 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM) and thelasvegassportsline.com.KENTUCKY VS. KANSAS
■ WHEN: 6 p.m. today
■ WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
■ TV/RADIO: CBS (8), KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)
■ RECORDS: Kentucky 37-2, Kansas 32-6
■ LINE: Kentucky -6; total 137 1/2