Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 20, 2019 | 2 a.m.
If it ever feels like the Strip is over capacity, it’s in sports-centric locations during the NCAA Tournament.
Watch parties have begun to draw such overflow crowds that it’s now a chore finding one with an affordable price tag. Seats at the actual sports books are taken virtually before the results shut off their neon lights.
And it’s only going to get more crowded in the coming years. Sooner or later, decades of foolish avoidance will be forgotten — a regional or sub-regional will be hosted locally.
To maximize the economic impact of such an event, let’s hope it’s a bracket like this year’s Midwest Region. In that case, assuming the games would be contested at T-Mobile Arena, bookmakers may need to get the keys to Raiders Stadium and install betting windows to fulfill the demand for watching and wagering on the off-day games.
Anytime a region winds up landing North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas as three of its top four seeds, it’s going to get an inordinate amount of the March Madness focus. The question is if the quality of the Midwest Region deserves the fanfare.
Based on the betting view, the answer is no.
Of the top 16 seeded teams in the tournament, only two of them have seen their future odds increase since the start of the season. They’re both in the Midwest — No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Kansas.
The Jayhawks have fallen a long way since coming into the season as the preseason No. 1 ranked team. Their roster withered to a shell of what it looked like at the beginning of the year, and with the disintegration came the end of their record 14 straight conference championships.
Kansas is now 60-to-1 to win the tournament after opening at 8-to-1.
Kentucky was the co-favorite at 8-to-1, but has now boosted to 12-to-1 after getting upset five times over the course of the season.
No. 1 seed North Carolina — 6-to-1 in the futures — spent most of the season as one of the top teams in the nation, but still power-rates as the weakest of the four top-line teams.
Such gripes can be made for every team in the Midwest.
No. 3 seed Houston, No. 7 seed Wofford and No. 8 seed Utah State all had terrific years, but enter the tournament with the usual schedule-strength stigma of mid-major programs. No. 6 seed Iowa State and No. 10 seed Seton Hall were .500 teams in conference play.
One entity is surely immune to any negativity. That’s the municipality of Kansas City, Mo., which must be salivating over tax projections of hosting the regional next weekend.
Barring a glut of major upsets, ticket prices to get into the Sprint Center will hover above the other three sites. Cities like Kansas City should enjoy the good fortune while it lasts.
Las Vegas will be in the host rotation before long, already fully equipped on how to handle tournament crowds.
Read below for picks on every game in the Midwest Region, listed in rough order of confidence. Lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas on the chosen side. This is part 3 of Talking Points’ series previewing the NCAA Tournament. Here’s part 1 and part 2. The final installment will be posted later today.
No. 2 seed Wofford minus-2.5 vs. No. 10 seed Seton Hall The Pirates made drastic strides down the stretch of the season, including covering in their last six games, but remain mediocre defending the 3-point line. That’s a major concern against Fletcher Magee, Nathan Hoover and the Terriers, which have the best three-point shooting percentage of any team in the tournament.
No. 3 seed Houston minus-11.5 vs. No. 14 seed Georgia State It might have been the best thing for the Cougars to suffer a worse-than-the-final-score-indicates 69-57 loss to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference tournament championship game. It could humble them going into the tournament and temper their perception in the betting market. This is a team that plays physical, smart and only lost two games in the regular season against a decent schedule by a combined nine points — all ingredients that could make for a deep tournament run.
No. 9 seed Washington plus-3 vs. No. 8 seed Utah State Number has swelled from opening at as low as Utah State minus-1, and the two extra points make the Pac-12 team a slightly more comfortable proposition. Washington is more athletic than Utah State, which may have trouble guarding dynamic shooting guard Jaylen Nowell and adjusting to the Huskies’ tendency to switch up defensive looks.
No. 11 seed Ohio State plus-6 vs. No. 6 seed Iowa State Iowa State should win this game, but its Big 12 Tournament championship appears to have thrown its power rating too far out of reach. The Cyclones haven’t given this many points on the betting line in nearly a month, and six points is a lot to lay with a defensively-challenged team taking on a talented, well-coached opponent.
No. 15 seed Abilene Christian plus-22.5 vs. No. 2 seed Kentucky It should go without saying that recent Division I convert Abilene Christian will be outmanned by Kentucky athletically, but it might be able to keep the margin somewhat subdued through its three-point accuracy. The Wildcats from Texas are in the top 10 tournament teams in 3 point percentage, while the Wildcats from Kentucky are in the bottom 10 of tournament teams in 3 point percentage defense.
No. 5 seed Auburn minus-6 vs. No. 12 seed New Mexico State Typically when a power-conference team peaks at the end of the season, the betting market gives them too much of a push and leaves them overvalued. The opposite appears to be happening with Auburn, which ran through the SEC Tournament and has gone 7-0 straight-up, 5-1-1 against the spread in March. Money is pouring in against the Tigers to keep their first-round spread deflated and it’s difficult to understand why. Yes, New Mexico State has won 19 straight but none of those victories were by teams anywhere near as strong as Auburn.
No. 1 seed North Carolina minus-24 vs. No. 16 seed Iona The Gaels may be drawing an unwarranted extra few points on the spread based on their year-after-year success. Although it’s highly impressive that they’ve earned the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference bid into the NCAA Tournament for four straight years, this is their weakest team in the span. Iona is limited offensively and will be unable to rebound with North Carolina.
No. 4 seed Kansas minus-7 vs. No. 13 seed Northeastern Reverting to the old, and admittedly flawed, rule of not backing a team that you can’t see winning when in doubt. Northeastern has the shooters to look like a potential bracket buster, but it hasn’t faced a defense as stingy as Kansas. The Huskies will also be up against a major matchup problem with Jayhawks big man Dedric Lawson.