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Sweet 16 betting preview: Can Mountain West teams continue tournament tear?

San Diego State and BYU are both underdogs on Thursday

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Leila Navidi

A bettor tracks his bets at the Race and Sports SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton Tuesday, March 15, 2011.

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Thanomkeo Hanesana, right, and his wife, Jiamjit, of Las Vegas watch basketball games at the Race and Sports SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton Tuesday, March 15, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Some Las Vegas sports books are celebrating the historic performance of Mountain West Conference teams in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Two teams from the Mountain West, No. 2 seed San Diego State and No. 3 seed BYU, have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in tournament history. Although sports books that predominantly serve tourists will attract the same action either way, local books could see a slight increase in handle with two teams featuring Las Vegas ties still alive.

San Diego State is currently a 1-point underdog against Connecticut in most shops, while BYU is posted as a 3-point ‘dog against Florida.

“I think they’re both in intriguing matchups,” said Lucky’s race and sports book director Jimmy Vaccaro. “I really couldn’t tell you who has the better chance. They both have a chance to win and they could both lose.”

Early money at Lucky’s — which runs books at Terrible’s, the Plaza and Fitzgerald’s — has come in against both of the Mountain West teams. Vaccaro opened San Diego State as a 1-point favorite, but the line has swung in UConn’s favor.

Florida also drew early interest. But that doesn’t concern Vaccaro, who said the action would be close to even by tip-off Thursday. San Diego State plays at 4:15 p.m. in Anaheim, Calif., while BYU takes the floor at 4:27 p.m. in New Orleans.

“Money will start to come in on San Diego State,” Vaccaro said. “Even though a little money has come in on Florida, Fredette will surely garner some attention and I think you can see they’ve shook off losing (Brandon Davies) for the rest of the year.”

College basketball bettor and Vegas Insider analyst Brian Edwards sees the Mountain West’s run coming to an end before the start of the weekend.

Edwards, who went 15-5 over the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in his picks posted to Vegas Insider, feels strongly about three sides in the Sweet 16. Two of them are Connecticut at a pick’em, which is still available at some books, and Florida -3.

“I’ve said all year I thought both BYU and San Diego State were legitimate Sweet 16 teams, which is quite an accomplishment,” Edwards said. “From there, it’s who wants it most and who wants to accomplish the most. I think one of those teams would have to play really special to make it any further.”

“I think they are running into better teams in UConn and Florida.”

The third team Edwards suggests taking a look at is No. 8 seed Butler, which is getting five points against No. 4 seed Wisconsin.

Butler has gone 6-1-1 against the spread as an underdog this season and has won seven of its past eight NCAA Tournament games after advancing to the national championship last season.

“Their defense this time of year is so good,” Edwards said. “They are tournament-tested and money at crunch time. You know their games are going to be close.”

The Bulldogs provided one of the only bright spots for sports books last Saturday when they beat top-seeded Pittsburgh outright as an eight-point underdog.

Favorites went 6-2, meaning the public had a solid winning day against the books. San Diego State gave sports book directors like Vaccaro the biggest headache when it captured a fluke cover against Temple.

The Aztecs were six-point favorites and pulled out a 71-64 victory in double overtime.

“The worst game for Lucky’s and I’d suggest the rest of the sports books was San Diego State,” Vaccaro said. “Everyone was on San Diego State and they were connected to every parlay.”

Sports books posted wins on the other three days of the tournament. Vaccaro said UNLV falling to Illinois in the first round was one of the most positive results for Lucky’s. Bettors swarmed to back the Rebels and largely ignored the Illini.

Virginia Commonwealth was also a Las Vegas favorite as the Rams chopped down No. 3 seed Purdue and No. 6 seed Georgetown as a 9.5-point underdog and 5.5-point underdog, respectively.

VCU enters Friday’s game against No. 10 seed Florida State as a 4-point underdog. Vaccaro said he wasn’t sure if most bettors were ready to start siding with VCU, but Edwards has seen enough.

“I love the way VCU is playing,” Edwards said. “We’ve seen Florida State has some trouble scoring. I think VCU looks very dangerous. This is a team that’s clicking.”

The NCAA Tournament is annually the biggest event of the year for sports books, but most of the madness comes with the first weekend of the tournament.

With only two or four games per day instead of eight or 16, more money is bet on each game this weekend but the total handle decreases by nearly 40 percent.

“It’s a walk through the park from here on out,” Vaccaro said. “Obviously, the work load goes down. There will be some key decisions, but not near as many as the first weekend.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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