Last weekend’s NCAA tournament game between UCLA and Florida was winding down with Florida comfortably leading by eight when the crowd broke into a chant of “Defense [clap-clap], Defense [clap-clap].” The Gators responded by forcing UCLA into a desperation three-pointer that clanked off the rim. Florida secured the rebound, and as the clock ticked down to zero the fans erupted, friends and strangers alike hugging and high-fiving like topless dancers the second Charlie Sheen walks into a strip club.
Two hours later, San Diego State had a five-point lead in the waning seconds of double-overtime against Temple when the Aztecs’ Kawhi Leonard stole the ball and raced for an uncontested dunk. San Diego State then blocked a three-point shot on the Owls’ ensuing possession, grabbed the rebound and ran out the clock to wrap up a seven-point win. Again, the building exploded.
The scene for this drama? Not the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. (where Florida beat UCLA) and not the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. (where San Diego State outlasted Temple). It was Lagasse’s Stadium, a sports bar/restaurant/sports book in the Palazzo, where I took in Saturday’s March Madness among more than 1,000 fans—the vast majority of whom had money on Florida (which won by 8 as a 6-point favorite) and San Diego State (which prevailed by 7 as a 6½-point favorite).
The frenzy in the Palazzo’s hidden man cave proved again there’s no better place to take in the NCAA tournament than Vegas—and in a city known for state-of-the-art sports-viewing venues, Lagasse’s Stadium might top the list. (Where else can you chow on fare from an Emeril Lagasse-inspired menu while lying on a chaise lounge in front of a 9-by-16-foot projection screen—one of more than 100 HDTVs—all with betting windows just steps away?)
Fortunately, thanks to San Diego State’s miracle cover along with winners on Butler and Connecticut, I walked away from those betting windows with a nice chunk of change Saturday night. Unfortunately, I wasn’t nearly as successful with my opening-round picks, going 3-7 and losing $314, dropping my bankroll to $6,342.
The good news? Unlike the 52 teams that have been bounced—I think 38 of those teams came from the Big East—I get a shot at redemption in the Sweet 16. And I’m ready to take advantage with one of my biggest plays in months.
$880 (to win $800) on UCONN (-1) vs. San Diego State (March 24, 7:15 p.m.): As a San Diego State alum, it pains me to do this. But the first rule in sports betting—a rule I hope UNLV fans followed last week–is to wager with your head, not your heart. Well, any objective handicapper would look at this matchup and conclude that San Diego State is in big trouble.
As much talent as the Aztecs have and as tenacious as they are defensively, they don’t have an answer for UConn guard Kemba Walker, who is averaging 27 points over the past eight games, the last seven of which the Huskies have won and covered. And when it comes to in-game tacticians, San Diego State’s Steve Fisher vs. UConn coach Jim Calhoun is akin to comparing a ball-game hot dog to a bone-in rib-eye from a five-star steak house; yes, both are meat products, but the similarities end there.
The Huskies are 10-0 at neutral courts this season, with victories on consecutive days over Michigan State and Kentucky in a preseason tournament in Maui, along with wins over Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville on successive days in the Big East tournament.
The counterargument is that San Diego State is 19-1 in road/neutral-site games (and this one will be played in Anaheim, just 80 minutes north of campus). The problem is only five of those 19 were against quality opponents: a three-point win at Gonzaga; two wins at UNLV by a total of eight points; a seven-point double-overtime win over Temple last weekend; and an 18-point win over BYU in the Mountain West tourney (but only after BYU handed SDSU its only two losses of the season).
My Aztecs have had a remarkable season, and they absolutely have Final Four-caliber talent. But the tournament is all about matchups, and this is a bad one for SDSU. UConn breaks open a close game down the stretch by hitting its free throws and wins by seven.
$220 (to win $200) on MARQUETTE (+4½) vs. North Carolina: The odds of only two of 11 Big East teams advancing out of the first weekend had to be higher than the crowd at a Snoop Dogg concert. The odds that one of those two would be Marquette had to be higher than me actually attending a Snoop Dogg concert. Yet the Golden Eagles are in the Sweet 16 after victories over No. 6 seed Xavier (66-55) and No. 3 seed Syracuse (66-62). At the same time, North Carolina struggled to get past 15th-seeded Long Island University (102-87) and barely escaped against seventh-seeded Washington (86-83).
Marquette has won (and covered) seven of 10, and the Eagles are 14-5 against the number in their last 19 as an underdog, while North Carolina has played five straight games without covering a point spread, trailing in the second half in four of those five.
BEST OF THE REST: Richmond (+10½) vs. Kansas ($55); Richmond-Kansas UNDER 138 ($55); Butler-Wisconsin UNDER 124 ($44); Arizona (+9) vs. Duke ($44); Ohio State (-5½) vs. Kentucky ($44); VCU money-line (+165) vs. Florida State ($30).