Monday, March 18, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Zion Williamson may currently wield more power in local sports books than any other athlete.
When Duke announced its superstar freshman would return for the ACC Tournament last week, gamblers rushed to betting windows to put money on the Blue Devils. Lines on each of Duke’s first two postseason games, against Syracuse and North Carolina, moved as much as 3 points in its direction.
“They were all over them against North Carolina,” said Ed Salmons, vice president of risk at Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. “And they were betting them everywhere equally — moneyline, point spread, in-game.”
Duke beat North Carolina in the ACC semifinal, 74-73, but failed to cover the closing 4-point spread. That won’t matter much going forward.
The same deluge of Duke money is likely to appear throughout the NCAA Tournament. Betting on the top-overall seeded Blue Devils might be the biggest draw of the busiest sports weekend of the year in casinos, but bookmakers aren’t going to make it easy on the masses.
The Superbook downturned Duke’s future odds to 2-to-1 after Sunday’s selection show — with other sports books going even lower — to put the Blue Devils in historic company. Only two teams in the last 20 years — Kentucky in 2012 and 2015 — entered the field with a smaller price to win the tournament.
“Duke deserves to be higher than 2-to-1 and we still have time to move it,” Salmons said, “but it’s just ridiculous how easy they made their draw. There is literally no team in that region that is a threat to them, unless Michigan State can make it to them. Duke can walk to the Elite Eight with no problems.”
Bettors gravitated towards the Blue Devils ever since they got their first look at Williamson alongside fellow freshmen standouts R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones, when they blew out Kentucky 118-84 to start the season. The Superbook took so much money on Duke at 5-, 4- and 3-to-1 that it was set to take a loss if the Blue Devils won the national championship for the majority of the year.
The wagers only slowed after Williamson hurt his knee in an 88-72 loss at North Carolina last month and Duke lost a few games without him. The Superbook no longer has liability on Duke but that’s not necessarily the case everywhere, even though it’s uncommon for sports books to lose money on a favored team in the futures market.
Duke has drawn the most money and bets at William Hill sports books, with 19 percent of the action and 9 percent of the tickets.
“Duke numbers are just going to be so high, but I’ll say this: Early on, that didn’t stop them,” Salmons said. “The public wouldn’t stop betting them, so no, they probably won’t stop again.”
During Duke’s Williamson-less swoon, Gonzaga assumed the role of most popular betting powerhouse. The Bulldogs, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, are right behind the Blue Devils in money and tickets at William Hill.
The Superbook had seen a steady flow of wagers on Gonzaga, which handed Duke its first loss of the year in an 89-87 win in the Maui Invitational final, for the last month before it halted suddenly. Gamblers appeared to lose interest after Gonzaga endured a 60-47 upset loss to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference final at The Orleans Arena last week.
“Now, the new hot team is North Carolina,” Salmons said. “I think that’s because they saw them beat Duke twice and seeing that last Duke game, they could have easily beaten them again.”
Gonzaga, 5-to-1, and North Carolina, 6-to-1, enter the tournament right behind Duke on the betting board. That leaves Virginia, at 8-to-1, as the lone No. 1 seed having never attracted a surplus of action.
The Cavaliers’ only two losses during the regular season came to the Blue Devils, leaving them overshadowed by the Williamson phenomenon. That puts them right alongside the rest of the college basketball world.
The whole tournament this year will come down to whether Duke is as imposing as advertised.
“There’s still this perception from the beginning of the year when everyone thought they were going to go undefeated,” Salmons said. “But they lost a few conference games, and they’re still so young. Young teams will have a game where they’ll fall behind, and there’s something about getting down 10 in the tournament against a good team. These teams that can stretch the defense and slow the game down can be a big deal, especially against a young team that starts pressing.”