No. 12 seeds lucrative as NCAA Tournament party begins

A step-back jumper from about 30 feet by Josh Hagins turned the Arkansas-Little Rock game into an instant classic. At sunrise Thursday, when college basketball fans started to fill Las Vegas sports books, who knew Hagins’ name?

How many of the dreamers who bet on Yale knew anything about Makai Mason?

March is a star search. It’s about buzzer-beating shots, comebacks, giant killers and teases. A short time after two No. 5 seeds were chopped down, top-seeded North Carolina was clinging to a one-point halftime lead. And then Arizona was blown out.

“Not that surprised,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill sports book director. “All of these big-conference teams can be beat.”

That’s why the books are jammed on the true opening day of the NCAA Tournament. We show up to be entertained and, of course, to try to cash out. At least one bettor accomplished both goals with some luck on his side, and he was wise to ignore Charles Barkley.

“We had one big bet on Yale money line,” Bogdanovich said, “and one big bet on Little Rock money line.”

The 12th-seeded Bulldogs, 5½-point underdogs and plus-210 on the money line, took down Baylor 79-75 behind Mason’s career-high 31 points. Barkley is a likable cartoon character as a TV analyst, but he knows a lot about the NBA and only a little about the college game. He boldly predicted a big win for the Bears, and to be fair, he had plenty of company.

But Baylor goes into every game at a disadvantage because Scott Drew is their coach. Coaching and good guards matter the most in March.

A short time after Mason led Yale to its first NCAA Tournament win in its first appearance since 1962, Hagins lifted 12th-seeded Little Rock to its first tournament win in three decades.

The Trojans, trailing by 14 points with just more than four minutes remaining, rallied to stun Purdue 85-83 in double overtime. Hagins hit a circus shot to tie the game with four seconds remaining in regulation, and Little Rock rolled on as an 8-point ’dog and plus-330 on the money line.

A gambler with a big bankroll and guts placed $15,000 money-line wagers on both Little Rock and Yale at a William Hill book in Primm. He walked away with around $78,000 and a wide smile.

On the subject of coaching, why did the Boilermakers not foul when leading by three with the clock running down? Why did they not go to 7-footer A.J. Hammons at all down the stretch? Those are huge mistakes that will burn Purdue coach Matt Painter all summer.

Gregg Marshall is a bet-on coach who’s worth all the money he makes, and he has been paid well to stay at Wichita State. The Shockers, who closed as 1-point ’dogs, beat down Arizona 65-55 in a game far more one-sided than the final score.

Everyone knew the names Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet before this tournament, but a majority of bettors were not believers. Wichita State, which deserved better than a No. 11 seed and a Tuesday play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, made a mockery of the betting public and a tournament selection committee that has been mocked all week.

The Tar Heels provided the tease of the day. North Carolina led Florida Gulf Coast 41-40 at halftime, making us wonder if this indeed would be the year a No. 16 seed pulled off a first-round miracle. The Eagles faded in the second half yet did cover as 22-point ’dogs in an 83-67 loss.

A 3-pointer by Gulf Coast’s Brian Greene Jr. with nine seconds to go put the score over the total for most bettors. The total was in the 148, 149 range before closing at 150.

Indiana survived the fifth-seeded jinx and closed out Chattanooga 99-74. The Hoosiers advanced to face Kentucky, which rocked Stony Brook 85-57.

“Kentucky will be our biggest loss by far,” Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “The public loves Kentucky.”

The closest thing to a buzzer beater was delivered by Rodney Bullock, who mysteriously wiggled free for an inbounds pass and scored on a layup with 1.5 seconds left as Providence, a 2½-point favorite, stunned Southern California 70-69. The Friars were heavily bet, so that was a win for the books.

At the midpoint of the first round, favorites are 9-7 against the spread.

In the morning, Butler, Connecticut, Iowa State and Virginia covered without much drama. Kansas closed as a 25-point favorite in a 105-79 victory over Austin Peay. The line was 26 for most of the week. Duke failed to cover as a 9½-point favorite in a 93-85 victory over UNC Wilmington. The Blue Devils did not get all of the calls, but they did get most of them, attempting 43 free throws (17 by Grayson Allen) to 19 for the Seahawks.

In the evening, Gonzaga and Utah coasted to covers. The Zags toyed with Big East tournament champion Seton Hall, and the Utes hit their free throws to knock out Mountain West tournament champ Fresno State.

“There is no better time than the first four days of the tournament,” Kornegay said. “It’s nonstop action.”

And the best part is it’s just getting started.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247

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