March Madness finds spiritual home in Las Vegas

Like it or not — and the NCAA almost certainly doesn’t — for many, the true spiritual home of college basketball this month is not in Buffalo or Greenville, S.C., or the Final Four site of the Phoenix suburb Glendale, but in Las Vegas.

And that is why The Strip heaved with humanity Thursday as the NCAA tournament tipped off across the country. Patrons convened to celebrate the pinnacle of amateur sports while partaking in booze and bets.

“This is the biggest sports party of the year,” said veteran broadcaster Brent Musburger, before settling into a comfortable chair at South Point Casino, with the authority of a man who knows all about March and its lunatic streak.

“It is chaos,” he said. “That’s why they call it madness. You can bet early and bet often and have all the fun Vegas brings while you are doing it. It is a mecca for college basketball.”

Musburger popularized the phrase “March Madness,” previously used by an Illinois high school tournament, while broadcasting the event for CBS in the early 1980s. After a long career with that network and ESPN, he is now based here as the lead host for VSiN, a new network that targets the continually booming sports gambling fan base.

“The one unsaid part about gambling on sports is how social it is,” Musburger said. “I see the same people all the time. They are not betting thousands; it is where friends get together, they talk about the bad beats. It is like a family.”

The family keeps growing. According to the American Gaming Association, an estimated $295 million will be wagered on the tournament in Las Vegas casinos. Super Bowl Sunday in February brought in $138.5 million in bets, although that was just one day.

Las Vegas has been quick to pick up on the chance to make a mint in March. The gambler is always the underdog here, but hey, this is the first weekend of the tournament, the time when long shots with wide eyes and big dreams confound the money line. Sometimes.

“Las Vegas is now the home for March Madness for the whole country,” said Derek Stevens, owner of The D hotel and casino in the city’s rejuvenated downtown area. “It is an amazing phenomenon, and it gets bigger every year. For us, it is the biggest, bigger than New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl.”

Virtually every casino is hosting extravagant watch parties. Room prices, at least those that are still available, are a reflector of demand. A Saturday night standard room at the Westgate resort, formerly the Las Vegas Hilton, will set you back $370. The same accommodation two days later? $86.

Las Vegas’ entrepreneurial streak also comes into play with imaginative marketing. There are margarita madness specials at the sit-out bars along The Strip, rumors of a mellow madness at a cannabis dispensary nearby and, if you feel like it, matrimonial madness offered at some of the wedding chapels.

It was that way for Joey Hess and Amy Denson. With both being college basketball fanatics, it made sense for their wedding in 2016 to have a March Madness flair to it.

“We wanted to mix an event and a sport that is so close to our heart with our most important day,” said Denson, who played professionally overseas for eight years and is now assistant women’s basketball coach at Portland State.

The pair wore high-top shoes with their traditional wedding garb for the ceremony, and for a photo shoot at Red Rock Canyon, guests watched games throughout the reception and the whole thing was a resounding success.

Denson stopped short of “dribbling a ball as I walked down the aisle,” but Hess said they enjoyed the experience so much they will be making an annual pilgrimage here. “For March Madness … and for our anniversary,” he said.

Over at South Point, Musburger got a hero’s welcome as he wandered through the casino to a studio where he broadcast for the next two hours.

To this crowd, the 77-year-old is as much a celebrity as the endless collection of DJs on Strip billboards are to electronic dance music nerds. The broadcaster is a man who has always felt it is OK to love sports and gambling and allow each to enhance the experience of the other.

“Beyond the gambling individual, a lot of people are interested and fascinated in the movement of gambling money,” he said, before starting a story about how March Madness just keeps getting madder.

“I looked at the board and was moving some underdogs around, and I said, ‘Folks, it is madness, it is March Madness,’ ” Musburger added, remembering his first use of the phrase more than two decades ago. “The term stuck, and it will always be there. I think that is why the NCAA won’t move it, even though the championship game is in April.

“And this is where the madness begins and ends.”

Las Vegas is the unofficial home of college basketball in March for those who like to be on games. (Photo: John Locher, AP)

March Madness 2017 Results: Live NCAA Tournament Updates, Scores for Thursday's First Round

After four months of waiting, the 2017 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament has finally arrived. Thursday's action tips off in the early afternoon with matchups featuring Notre Dame, Virginia, Butler and Gonzaga in the earliest window. The Round of 64's first day includes star players like Bonzie Colson, London Perrantes, Melo Trimble, Josh Hart, Caleb Swanigan, Jonathan Isaac, Ethan Happ, Lauri Markkanen and Monte Morris. Northwestern will also make its first-ever appearance in March Madness, while tournament regulars like West Virginia, VCU and Wisconsin are also in action.

March Madness Day 1 roundup: Fisher-Davis’s foul will live in infamy

The foul took place in Salt Lake City. It resonated at least as far east as Tulsa, Okla.

Surely well beyond, actually. But in a BOK Center locker room, Tom Izzo caught sight of Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis fatefully reaching out and drawing a whistle with his team up one in the waning seconds against Northwestern. He saw the infraction lead to go-ahead free throws from the Wildcats’ Bryant McIntosh and then to a missed Commodores three-pointer and finally to a galling, gutting loss. The Michigan State coach saw, once again, the caprices and pressures of March in action.

“Probably for most people you'd say, how can that happen,” Izzo said. “I told my team, it happens easy. That's the aura of the one-and-done in the NCAA tournament. And that's what makes it so good.”

What’s good is, of course, also bad. After Day 1 of the main NCAA tournament draw on Thursday, it was instructive to remember that March memories celebrated by some will haunt others. One side’s exhilaration is another side’s enduring pain. Nineteen springs earlier, in fact, Vanderbilt’s coach took a touch pass and a leaning three-pointer and became a legend. “I’ve never gotten tired of it,” Bryce Drew said, when it was posited to him that The Shot he hit for Valparaiso against Ole Miss in 1998 entered him into a small cadre of athletes who have done things no one will ever forget.

Late Thursday afternoon, he was in charge of consoling another such player, albeit for far more agonizing reasons.

Fisher-Davis’s foul of McIntosh after a go-ahead layup by teammate Riley LaChance with 18 seconds left will live in infamy. As Fisher-Davis explained it to reporters, he simply lost track of the score and thought coaches pointing to McIntosh were asking for a foul. “You know, from Day 1, we teach our guys that we're a team,” Drew said in his postgame press conference. “And one play at the end or one or two plays at the end doesn't lose a game for us. There's plays throughout the whole game that coaches can call better, that players can play better, we've had that pattern through the whole year with our guys. I'll talk to Matt more in depth at some point. He's down about it. It could have been a miscommunication. He looked over at me before. But one play doesn't lose the game for you. And I'm proud of the guys fighting back and being in that situation. Without him we're not even close to being in that situation at the end.”

As for other assorted musings from the first day of play as the field was whittled to 48 …

• It was a big day for the Big East. So, yes, Villanova may have hit the snooze button for far too long against Mount St. Mary’s. The defending champions’ one-point halftime lead over a 16 seed was startling, but the eventual 20-point margin of victory surely was not. Meanwhile, the league notched two very solid wins elsewhere, including a by-the-seed upset. Butler had been sized up as a possible first-round upset victim…and then it promptly downed Winthrop by 13. And Xavier suddenly resembled the team that was chasing Villanova and a league title before injuries decimated those chances. Trevon Bluiett hit five three-pointers in a 21-point effort in a win over Maryland that continued his All-America-level play in the last month since a comeback after an ankle sprain. And have the Musketeers uncovered a March X-factor in 6’10” Sean O’Mara? The junior scored 18 points in 21 minutes off the bench, his second double-digit scoring outing in three games—after recording just two such performances since December.

If Xavier is back at full strength—or at least what qualified as full strength after Edmond Sumner’s ACL tear—then we might have a legitimate threat masquerading as a No. 11 seed.

• This could be (should be?) Randy Bennett’s last NCAA tournament at Saint Mary’s. Pulling away from VCU for a an 85–77 victory should only reconfirm that the Gaels coach ought to be on the radar for openings at Cal and Washington. This is a situation where the schools need not overthink things. Maybe bigger names (like Tom Crean, recently deposed at Indiana) will surface now that the hiring landscape has changed. But more or less keeping pace with Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference is not an easy thing to manage. The guy can coach. Don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be, Pac-12 schools.

• Devin Cannady, native of Mishawaka, Ind., plays summer basketball against the guys on the roster for Notre Dame, located one town over in South Bend. He’s tight with V.J. Beachem, the Fighting Irish’s second-leading scorer. And he had the ball in his hands early Thursday with the chance to dispatch his neighbors in the first round. The Princeton sophomore missed a look at a potential go-ahead three-pointer, however, and Notre Dame escaped with a 60–58 victory. “I got my feet set, ball came in my shot pocket,” Cannady said at a news conference. “I looked at the rim, and when the ball left my hand, I thought it was good. It didn't go in and that's what happens when you take those shots. It either does or doesn't. In this case it didn't.”

Speaking of shots that didn’t go in: Beachem and senior Steve Vasturia combined to miss 17 of 21 shots against Princeton. There is absolutely zero chance Notre Dame can defeat West Virginia without an uptick in their production, so consider that a second-round storyline to watch in the West Region.

• Maybe no one will score in the second-round matchup between Florida and Virginia. Both were deemed possible upset victims. Neither was. And now we have a matchup featuring two of the most efficient defenses in the country. After Thursday’s action, Virginia ranks second and Florida ranks fourth, per The most consequential part, though, may be what the meeting portends for the following weekend. The winner is theoretically rolling with a defense that is fully connected. And the next step might be stopping…Villanova, the reigning champs, in the Sweet 16.

• It might not be feasible to get a read on the Big Ten from this tournament. The selection committee decided the Big Ten wasn't all that impressive. It then doled out low and/or odd seedings. And because the Big Ten teams have low and/or odd seedings, they will have tougher roads in this event.  So we're supposed to judge a league by its performance in a tournament in which the odds are already stacked against it?

All that said, it wasn't a terrific first day for the league. Two teams didn't hold serve: No. 6 seed Maryland lost to No. 11 seed Xavier, and No. 5 seed Minnesota lost to No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State...though the latter result wasn't much of an upset, in the eyes of the oddsmakers and anyone who understood that the Gophers were over-seeded anyway. Purdue and Wisconsin, meanwhile, won as higher seeds. A mixed bag, yes.  But we didn't need the NCAA tournament to tell us that the league was susceptible to some significant ups and downs.

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