John Stevens is a featured columnist for RTC. His columns appear on Tuesdays throughout the season.
It seems like we’re still feeling things out, getting our bearings, and getting to know some teams in this college basketball season, but believe it or not we are one-third through the 2008-09 campaign. Pretty soon it’ll be the Christmas-time tournaments and then conference play, at which point the season seems to accelerate until we get to those beautiful, life-affirming days of the conference tournaments, Championship Week, and the NCAA Tournament. I was browsing through some of the pre-season columns here on RTC and came across this one that talked about how the fair, wonderful, and beautiful people in Las Vegas saw the season shaping up. Specifically, there’s a pretty sweet table listing every Division One squad with even the most remote chance of winning the 2009 title, and the money line they were offering for each team.
(Note: My sentiments above regarding the gambling gods in Las Vegas have nothing to do with the fact that the yearly RTC Vegas field trip is coming up in March. I think those things are true, no matter what. Wonderful, good-looking people they are, all of them. Every one. God bless them. Seriously…)
Now, in case you don’t know how a money line works, here’s the deal. Let’s say you go to a casino in Las Vegas and look up at the big board at the sportsbook and you see something that says North Carolina +300. This means that if you think UNC will win the title in 2009, you walk up to the incredibly nice man at the front of the sportsbook and tell him you want to make that bet. +300 means that if you bet $100 and UNC wins, the man will give you back $400, meaning the $300 offered in the money line, and your $100 bet (minus a small commission). Often, you’ll see a negative number next to a team, like (and I’m just throwing this name out) Fordham –200. This means that if you bet $200 to win (money lines can be applied to single games, conference titles, national championships, whatever) on Fordham, and Fordham wins, the nice man will hand you back $300 – the $200 you bet, and the $100 offered on that money line. A positive number means that’s how much you’ll win if you bet $100. A negative number means that’s what you have to bet in order to WIN $100. And of course you can bet as much as you want up to the maximum, i.e. with UNC above, you can bet $10 and win $30, or you can bet $500 and win $1500.
The original article covered pretty much everything noteworthy about the accompanying preseason table, but a couple of other items stood out to me. First of all, the very top. Everyone knew how great UNC was going to be, but here’s Vegas, telling us that they’re willing to give us FOUR TIMES our money if we have the so-called guts to put some cash down on what might end up being one of the all-time great college teams. Yeah, that sound you’re hearing right now? That’s me kicking myself. And without recapping the whole original article – who wouldn’t take a shot on Louisville and Connecticut (+1200 and 1400?!?)? I also literally get dizzy and have to sit down when I see Pitt (+2000), Oklahoma (+3500), Gonzaga (+4000!!), and a pretty doggone hot and versatile Wake Forest team (offered at an abominable +8000). Hey, Cincinnati readers, you looking for Xavier? They’re not even listed. You’d have to have your bet cheapened by taking the entire field at +1200.
But of course this is all with benefit of hindsight. I had this information in the preseason just like everyone else and I just sat on it. So the question becomes, where are we now? What is Vegas offering? Is there any value comparable to what we could have had in the preseason? Well, wonder no more, my friends. Here’s the latest:
Vegas is still willing to almost triple your money with a bet on UNC, offering +175, claiming there’s a 36.4% chance that they’ll be raising the trophy in early April. It looks like they’ve woke up to Gonzaga and Tennessee as well, despite recent losses, but certainly not enough to put anyone off such a wager. But look at Louisville – true, they have a couple of things to iron out but that loss to Western Kentucky is far enough back in the rearview mirror, and since his days at Providence Rick Pitino has been the best in the business as far as 1) “learning” about his team from losses, and 2) getting his teams, and specifically the defense they play, to peak in March. Are you telling me that if one of your friends came up to you right now and said, “Give me $10 right now. If Louisville wins the title, I’ll hand you back $150,” you wouldn’t take that bet?
Obviously the story here is that, because of the sheer dominance of North Carolina and the way they’ve just eclipsed the entire college basketball landscape, most of the tremendous value that was on the board back in November is still there even a third of the way into the season. For some teams it’s come back a little (UConn, Oklahoma) but it’s still pretty inviting. For other squads you can get even better deals than back in November (Louisville, Texas, Kansas, Pitt), and you have the Tar Heels to thank for that. I mean, come on — they still don’t even bother to list #7 Xavier. Vegas is telling us here that any bet against UNC is basically a sucker bet. They might be right. But they’re certainly willing to reward you like crazy if you feel adventurous enough to bet against the Tar Heels, should they falter.