John Stevens is a featured columnist for RTC. His columns will appear on Tuesdays throughout the season.
The college basketball world is still dumping the cooler on Boston College after the Eagles’ improbable victory over North Carolina on Sunday night. So, things have changed, right? It looks like the Tar Heels have come back to the pack, yes? The season is a true competition again. Anyone can win. It’s a level playing field.
Sure it is.
You'd Think Losing to BC Would Tighten the Vegas Odds (photo credit: AP/Gerry Broome)
But wait…that win by B.C. meant a lot; it got the Eagles their first Top 25 ranking in about two years. It means that even if UNC wins out, they still can’t be considered for membership into the Greatest Teams Of All Time pantheon. They started their ACC campaign with a big fat ‘L.’ It showed every college basketball team in the nation that the Heels are indeed mortal, that the almost holy image they’d accrued was not valid. Everyone everywhere is talking about how much this Boston College victory was worth.
You know what it was worth in Las Vegas? 45 bucks.
In terms of winning the national championship, that is. If you’re “daring” enough to put your money on North Carolina now that they’ve suffered a loss, compared with those who put their money down before Sunday, you’d win exactly $45 more.
I’m not taking anything away from Boston College’s achievement. The Dean Dome — especially this year — has been considered a virtual venus fly-trap for any team presumptuous enough to actually show up for a game against UNC; Boston College knew that and still went in and got the job done. It’s true, they really did knock this imposing edition of the Tar Heels right out of the running for admission among the greatest college basketball teams of all time (a fact I’m sure UNC fans are tired of hearing about by now), a spectre that had indeed been following them around since Hansbrough, et al, told the NBA draft to stick it last year. B.C. deserves major props, make no mistake.
But I’m looking at this through Vegas’ eyes. And from their viewpoint, this still isn’t even a race.
If we observe the latest odds
(refer to the first edition of the odds watch
if you forgot how the money line works; in short, the +(x) means you get back $(x + $100) on a $100 bet), we’ll see that even after this home loss, UNC
is still at +220, a change of only $45 from the previous +175. The next contender? Connecticut
at +1000, and Big East brother Pittsburgh
at +1200. But look at the margins between UNC and the closest competitor before AND after the loss. Before the B.C. game, they were $625 ahead of the next team on the list. Now? After this supposedly devastating loss? $780 ahead of UConn. In other words, compared to before the Boston College game, they’re even farther ahead of the closest team(s) in their rearview mirror.
I began thinking about how this could possibly be the case, but it didn’t take much reflection to figure it out. As noted above, UNC has been given a steady diet of “one-of-the-best-of-all-time” talk for about six months now. I don’t know how the coaching staff has handled this — maybe they embraced it and wanted their players to be cocky, or maybe they tried to keep their players more focused on immediate (i.e. game-to-game) goals, who knows. Either way, the players have still been aware of it, no question. But now it’s gone. They’re not playing for immortality. They’re not playing for as big a piece of history as before, but playing for an ACC title, a Final Four, and a national championship is still playing for history. The 2008-09 Tar Heels are parallel to a pitcher who threw four perfect innings with a big lead but just had their perfect game/no-hitter broken up with two out in the fifth. You threw a good first half, but now just worry about getting the win. If you can keep from doing something stupid, you’ll probably get it. If I were a UNC basketball player, I’d be pissed that my team won’t go undefeated and that I probably won’t be on one of those “all-time” teams. But now I can concentrate on the real task at hand, and that’s winning a national title. All that other stuff’s gone. And before the comments pile up accusing me of being too pro-Heel, I’m not. I don’t come from there and I have nothing to do with that program. But I don’t see any other way to look at it. Sometimes a loss like this can bring some clarity. And I think the folks making the odds in Vegas agree.
I’ve got to point out some other values on the new list, though. I still think winning $1200 on a $100 bet is a pretty good deal for the current #1 team in the nation, Pittsburgh. Hell, Vegas will still basically triple your money if you bet on the Tar Heels and they win it. I’m pretty damn surprised that Duke (+1600) hasn’t pulled ahead of Tennessee, Gonzaga, and the freaking FIELD (+1400, +1500, and +1500, respectively). Wake Forest is still extremely attractive at +3300 (previously +5000), and about the farthest I’d go down on this list is Syracuse (+4000, previously +3000), but as I’ve said, I have a Syracuse affliction this year. I can’t put my finger on it, but every time I watch them, I get the feeling that they’re about three seconds away from reeling off about 20 straight wins. I’ll understand if others don’t get that, because I can’t explain it myself. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they got bounced in the first round. I’m still trying to figure that team out.
But the lesson here is at the top, my friends. Boston College (+6000) is to be applauded for going into such a vaunted place and defeating a team that was being groomed for legend. They deserve their shiny new ranking. And sure, they reminded us that anything can certainly happen in a single-elimination scenario. But through the eyes of the Vegas oddsmakers, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to get excited. This is still like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont. They’re not just better than the competition — even despite a loss, they’re widening the lead.