Chris Szagola / AP
Friday, April 1, 2016 | 2 a.m.
When the NCAA Tournament selection committee awarded Syracuse an at-large bid three Sundays ago, the reaction from those behind the sports-betting counter at the Mirage mirrored the outrage from fans in living rooms across the country.
Most of the assembled members of the MGM Resorts International sports book staff complained, expressing that the Orange’s slot should have gone to a more deserving mid-major such as Monmouth, Saint Mary’s or Valparaiso. MGM Vice President of Race and Sports Jay Rood was more hesitant.
“Believe it or not, I told my staff, ‘With everything they have and what they went through early in the season, if they can get it right, they could make a run in this tournament,” Rood said.
Rood now regrets not heeding his own warning. He adjusted Syracuse’s odds to win the tournament up to 500-to-1 that evening, and 17 bettors wagered on the price over the next four days.
The move has left him in the same camp as other bookmakers around town in hoping for the ACC’s March Madness dominance to subside at the Final Four. Syracuse comes into the national semifinals Saturday night in Houston as a 9.5-point underdog to conference-mate North Carolina after Villanova plays Oklahoma as a 2-point favorite in the opening game.
Las Vegas sports books will root for the survivor of the early game in the ensuing national championship on Monday night. While casinos are poised to make money overall on the futures regardless, North Carolina or Syracuse would cut deeply into profits.
“The Villanova-Oklahoma winner would be much better for us,” William Hill US Director of Trading Nick Bogdanovich said. “Syracuse money accumulated at the high numbers and North Carolina, we just have a lot on the small odds.”
Bogdanovich posted Syracuse at 400-to-1 on Selection Sunday, but only attracted a few dabblers on the price. William Hill’s more significant hit came at the same time on North Carolina at 5-to-1, as a pair of “really big bets” joined a decent collection of money on it from throughout the year.
North Carolina opened as a 10-to-1 second choice in the futures odds at William Hill, behind Kentucky, and as an 8-to-1 favorite at MGM. Although Oklahoma and Villanova eventually spent longer as the No. 1 ranked team in the pools, they never drew the same action as North Carolina.
“I guess people just figured Oklahoma hadn’t been there forever and it felt like (Villanova coach) Jay Wright could never get there,” Bogdanovich said. “They just weren’t as popular.”
Bettors are split almost evenly on the matchup between Villanova and Oklahoma so far. It’s not that way in the all-ACC game.
At MGM, two out of every three tickets are on North Carolina. Bogdanovich predicted three out of every four patrons would have wagered on the Tar Heels at his shop by tipoff.
“This is the game that will have the biggest disparity,” Rood said. “I think everyone will be on North Carolina.”
A proposition bet at William Hill asks gamblers whether North Carolina will win the title, with “yes” at minus-125 (risking $1.25 to win $1) and “no” at plus-105 (risking $1 to win $1.05). That implies a 54 percent chance the Tar Heels win their third title under coach Roy Williams.
But a team has come into the Final Four with better than a 50 percent likelihood by the odds in each of the last two years, and neither 2015 Kentucky nor 2014 Florida made it out of the semifinals.
Bogdanovich isn’t as optimistic about dodging a third straight favorite.
“When they play their best game, I don’t see anyone beating North Carolina,” he said. “Marcus Paige is playing great, and Brice Johnson has been a monster. They’ve got so much swagger right now.”
The Orange aren’t lacking in that department either. Syracuse has been the best team to bet on in the tournament, covering in all four rounds by an average of 14.5 points per game.
It’s held every opponent to less than 1 point per possession behind coach Jim Boeheim regularly tweaking his famous 2-3 zone and overall defensive approach.
“I’ve thought they were going to lose every game they’ve played in the tournament,” Bogdanovich said. “But Boeheim, love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect him. He’s coached very well and made all the right calls.”
In the defensive regard, the Orange are reminiscent of the team they’re trying to catch as the longest shot champion of all-time. Connecticut cashed as a 100-to-1 shot at the beginning of the tournament two years ago by bearing down on defense.
Rood knew Syracuse was capable. He wishes he acted on it.
“I wasn’t sharp enough to bet it myself,” Rood said. “I’m kind of kicking myself for that one. 500-to-1? You could hedge that pretty good right now.”