Experiencing March Madness, Vegas StylePosted by Sean Moran on March 27th, 2014
RTC correspondent Sean Moran spent the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend in Las Vegas taking in all of the action on the Strip.
Memphis’ Michael Dixon Jr. steps to the line for two shots with 0.3 seconds on the clock for the Memphis Tigers. The crowd rises in unison. Screams of “MISS IT” are yelled out by one half of the crowd. The other half mutters and prays “please, please just hit the first one.” As the first of two free throws rips through the net, a loud roar erupts, dancing and hugging ensue. At the same time a look of despair appears from the fans hoping for a miss. A game-winner, you might ask? No, just a meaningless free throw that actually meant a whole lot to the fans gathered in Vegas.
The beauty of March Madness in Las Vegas is that the games are always interesting. Sure, the first four days were absolutely insane for the general fan too, with upsets, buzzer-beaters, and overtimes, but add in some gambling and you have March Madness on steroids. The casinos on the Strip open their betting windows early for the rush of college basketball fans streaming in from all over the country. Along with the standing room only sportsbooks, the casinos also offer stadium seating in their oversized auditoriums with big screen projectors to show every game. Fans are cheering, yelling, screaming, cursing, and pleading from 9:00 AM through the final buzzer 12 hours later that night. With overpriced light beers and food galore, everyone tends to get more rowdy as the day wears on.
Thursday started with an upset of Dayton over Ohio State and ended with a bang. Despite the early tip times on the West Coast it was almost impossible to find a seat in the Treasure Island auditorium. The day culminated with three scintillating overtime games in successive fashion along with a Cameron Ridley buzzer-beater for Texas. On day 2 the crowd turned quickly for the underdog right off the bat. Just like Florida Gulf Coast a year ago, the Atlantic Sun conference champion was not backing down against a high-level opponent. Mercer came in as a juicy 13-point underdog, and despite a three-point barrage from Duke, the Bears never backed down. Bold bettors were rewarded with an 8:1 payout on their bet as a few lucky winners cashed a sweet MoneyLine ticket. Even blowouts that the average fan turned away from turned into nail-biting affairs. If you took the “over” in the Baylor-Nebraska game you looked pretty much dead in the water with a 29-16 halftime score. Thanks to 18 fouls from Nebraska and a combined 99 points in the second half, the “over” backers were left shaking their heads in disbelief as the 74-60 final somehow made it past the 130.5 total.
The sports book was a rowdy place all weekend but never louder than when Dixon Jr. hit that free throw to go up four against George Washington on Friday. The Tigers had enjoyed a cushy lead for pretty much the whole game, so with a nine-point lead and just under four minutes to play, most bettors holding Memphis -3.5 were already mentally cashing their tickets. A flurry of action later cut the Memphis lead to one point and those same bettors were wondering what happened to their lock while GW fans looked around in disbelief. After two Dixon free throws pushed the lead back up to three points, the noise level started to rise. Ten seconds remained. Memphis fans, er, bettors wondered if there was any way for GW to miss a three and commit a foul while GW backers were just hoping to escape and win some money. Senior guard Maurice Creek launched a deep three for the tie, which fell well short. As Memphis corralled the loose ball all sorts of chaos broke out in the auditorium. “Foul, foul!” yelled the Memphis supporters as senior Nemanja Mikic moved toward Dixon Jr. again. The contact occurred as the clock ran out. Memphis backers exploded while George Washington fans implored the refs to end the game. Ultimately, after a review, 0.3 seconds were put back on the clock. The fortunes of those bettors turned in a heartbeat while those holding the dog were crushed. The Tiger sank the first free throw and the Memphis spread was covered. Half of the room in bedlam; the other half disappointed.
The past weekend March Madness viewership increased four percent as the opening weekend tied 1998 for its highest rating/share to-date. Billion-dollar brackets went up in flames fairly quickly, but in Vegas there was always something on the line, no matter the time or the score.