A Final Four of big bets, busted brackets
Jay Kornegay isn’t sure who the guy is, or exactly what his
motivation was. All he knows is no one is laughing at him now.
That probably wasn’t the case months ago when the man walked
into the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton, put $10 on the
counter and pocketed a betting slip on Virginia Commonwealth to win
the national championship. It was the kind of wager that can cause
snickers among the knowing, much like betting on the Pittsburgh
Pirates to win the World Series.
”Maybe it’s someone whose girlfriend went to VCU,” Kornegay
said. ”I don’t know. But you’d like to be holding that golden
Who wouldn’t. Two more wins for the Rams, and they go into the
record books as the most unlikely of all Cinderellas, the first
team to win seven games in the NCAA tournament and win the national
And the bettor who holds the winning ticket will be a cool
$50,000 richer. Try making that in your office pool.
”I was kind of hoping it would end yesterday,” said Kornegay,
who runs the Hilton sports book. ”I just shake my head thinking
they’re in the Final Four.”
The Hilton book will survive, of course, even if VCU caps its
remarkable run with the title. The betting in Vegas is that VCU
won’t, with the Rams the longest shot of the Final Four teams at
But the beauty of the NCAA tournament is that there’s still room
for marginal teams to get hot and do something magical. And they
don’t get much more marginal than VCU, which was savaged on
national television by ESPN’s Jay Bilas as unworthy when the field
was announced and then made an underdog in every game by
Add Butler to the mix, and even the wise guys are scratching
”There’s always been one team that is a big surprise,” said
Art Manteris, who runs the sports books for Station Casinos. ”I
don’t ever remember two.”
If the people who should know are confused, so are the average
Joes. Well, not all the average Joes.
Joe Pearlman, who lives in East Brunswick, N.J., and works in
information technology, was one of only two people out of 5.9
million entries in ESPN.com’s bracket tournament to pick all the
Final Four teams correctly, something that could make him $10,000
should VCU go on to win the national title.
Pearlman’s wife, Susan, was busy at home Monday answering phone
calls from people wondering how her husband is so smart, and
explaining that he filled out a bracket just for fun and took only
10 minutes to complete it.
”Is this a big deal every year when this happens?” she
This year it is, and the ESPN.com statistics show why. According
to contest organizers, only 29.7 percent of the 5.9 million entries
had at least one Final Four team correct, 2.1 percent had two
right, and just 1,093 had three of the Final Four correct.
Among the millions who had their brackets busted by VCU was
President Barack Obama, who had Kansas to win it all. But the Rams
did make some money for bettors in Vegas, who won $650 for every
$100 they wagered that VCU could beat the Jayhawks straight up.
If the NCAA had its way, of course, you would never read about
those figures. The organization likes to pretend that the
tournament exists solely for the purpose of picking a national
champion, ignoring the fact that millions of people around the
nation wager a bit of their paychecks on the tournament in one way
But they do, and for many they’ve become an annual rite of
spring. Technically, the office pools and online contests are
gambling – with some of them offering big winnings – but even the
strident antigambling types at the NCAA mostly keep silent about
what drives a big portion of the tournament’s popularity.
They don’t worry about such things in the sports books, where
Kentucky should draw plenty of action as the new favorite to win it
all. VCU, the underdog in all five of its wins, should also be a
popular pick as a 2 1/2-point dog to Butler.
The Rams won’t be as popular behind the counter at the Las Vegas
Hilton, though, if only because Kornegay cringes at the thought of
paying out $50,000 on a $10 bet.
”I was a Kansas fan yesterday,” he said. ”And I’ll be rooting
for Butler on Saturday.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org