In Las Vegas, tournament means bettor days ahead NCAA games big draw at the sports books

March 17, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS - At 8 a.m Thursday before the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, more than 300 bettors have lined up at the windows at the MGM Grand. More than a dozen are waiting by the $500 minimum-bet cage. A guy in a jumpsuit is flashing a wad of bills.

"I like the challenge of matching wits with the professionals who set the odds," said Mike from Phoenix, who would lighten his bankroll considerably by backing Duke against Eastern Michigan, a 3 1/2 -point underdog that won by 15.

"Usually, I stick to betting the pros. But this is too big to resist."

This is March Madness, but it's more than the hoops mania displayed at regional NCAA tournament sites.

A related brand of madness takes place in the garish, multi-screen sports books on the Las Vegas Strip, where the players in the parlors, not the players on the court, are the thing.

Gamblers are in hoops heaven, able to bet point spreads, overs and unders and halftime scoring just about everything but Dick Vitale's decibel count.

And professionals such as Gene Kivi, who runs the MGM bet shop, are raking in the vigorish the dollar edge the house always enjoys.

"The NCAA is now running a close second to the Super Bowl in total betting, and the media and TV hype is making it bigger every year," said Kivi.

"The state of Nevada grossed $70.9 million for the last Super Bowl. The two weeks of NCAA action could approach $50 million this year. This is going to be a wild two weeks."

The hysteria begins with the first game with top seed Kentucky a 34-point favorite over 16th seed San Jose State in the Midwest Regional.

Among the minority of San Jose State supporters is Joe from Mesquite, Texas, a financial planner for Pizza Hut. Today, Joe is figuring how he can slice up the pie by betting all the big underdogs in first-round action, such as San Jose State, Colgate (+28 1/2 ) and Western Carolina (+20).

"I've been coming here four straight years, and I've had good success betting the 'dogs," he said. "Win or lose, this is the greatest weekend of the year for me. You get a few thrills betting the Super Bowl, but here you can bet 16 games in 24 hours."

Joe of Mesquite is wearing a broad smile with San Jose leading midway through the first half and down only by six points at the break. But his confidence starts to flag as the Spartans wear down, and Kentucky is leading 90-64 with five minutes left.

For several minutes, the satellite feed is lost, and fans screech, "Put the Kentucky game on, you idiots!"

When the picture returns, Kentucky is up by 30. With 1: 30 remaining, a great shout goes up when the Wildcats equal the betting line.

The Spartans turn the ball over. On their next possession, they miss several close-range shots. When six bodies hit the floor, a Kentucky backer bellows, "It's our ball," as if his ties to the Wildcats go deeper than Adolph Rupp's.

The game ends 110-72. Kentucky has covered the spread and Joe from Mesquite is 0-for-1.

Many hard-core gamblers probably spend more time calculating their bets than Alan Greenspan spends mulling over the prime rate. But not all are so studious.

Take Joe Rodriguez, an undercover vice policeman from Elizabeth, N.J.

Rodriguez is surprisingly naive in the ways of gambling and asks for help in deciphering the strange-looking numbers on the board. After a rudimentary lesson, he says, "I'm betting Iowa State [+2 against California]. I like their striped shirts."

Of course, he wins. The Cyclones beat the Golden Bears, 74-64. Rodriguez starts searching the screen for other appealing uniforms.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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