College Basketball
March Madness betting preview: Gonzaga-UCLA in Vegas big for sportsbooks
College Basketball

March Madness betting preview: Gonzaga-UCLA in Vegas big for sportsbooks

Updated Mar. 24, 2023 8:52 a.m. ET

The March Madness odds market is onto the Sweet 16, as the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament reaches its second weekend. Bettors are certainly hoping this week is better than last, when one decision after another fell in favor of the oddsmakers.

One matchup certainly stands out: Thursday night’s West Region semifinal between No. 3 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed UCLA. It’s a rematch of an exhilarating Final Four tilt from the 2021 NCAA tourney. And if that’s not enough, well, the game will be played in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip.

[RELATED: March Madness regional predictions]

There are plenty of other matchups worth delving into, which we’ll endeavor to do, with insights from The SuperBook and WynnBet, along with avid college basketball bettor Andy Molitor.

Madness in Vegas

It’s not like Las Vegas isn’t crazy enough during the NCAA tournament. The city is a bucket-list March Madness destination every year.

But hosting the NCAA tournament for three games — the West semis Thursday night and West final Saturday night — is just over the top. In a move showing that the NCAA has joined other major sports leagues in getting over its aversion to sports betting, Vegas earned a spot in this year’s rotation.


(And brace yourself: Vegas will host the Final Four at Allegiant Stadium in 2028.)

Thursday night’s first tip between No. 4 seed UConn and No. 8 Arkansas is intriguing, sure. But the nightcap between the Zags and Bruins has the city abuzz, and oddsmakers foresee tremendous action.

"I expect big handle on that game because it’s the marquee game of the regional semifinal round, and it’s the last game of the day," said John Murray, executive director of The SuperBook. "That would be the heaviest-bet game even if it wasn’t being played at T-Mobile Arena."

Added Jay Kornegay, who runs The SuperBook as vice president of race and sports for Westgate casino:

"The Gonzaga-UCLA game is a highlight and will drive action, especially since it’s taking place on the Las Vegas Strip. Furthermore, both fan bases are comfortable coming to Las Vegas, which will provide an additional spike to the overall handle numbers."

Indeed, UCLA visits Las Vegas each year for the Pac-12 Conference Tournament, and Gonzaga does likewise for the West Coast Conference Tournament. And as noted above, these teams have some very recent history. In the 2021 Final Four, Gonzaga beat UCLA 93-90 in overtime when Jalen Suggs banked in a last-second 3-pointer.

For Thursday night’s meeting, UCLA opened as a 1-point favorite at The SuperBook. The Bruins got as high as -2.5 — albeit briefly — early in the week and were at -1.5 late Wednesday night, including at FOX Bet. Murray anticipates The SuperBook being in an interesting spot.

"For the game, it looks like we will need Gonzaga. But the Zags are a big futures liability for us," Murray said, noting his shop needs someone other than Gonzaga to win the championship. "So even though it’s early, it wouldn’t beak our hearts to see Gonzaga go out."

No. 3 Gonzaga (30-5) vs. No. 2 UCLA (31-5), 9:45 p.m. ET Thursday, CBS

Point spread: UCLA -1.5 (UCLA favored to win by more than 1.5 points, otherwise Gonzaga covers)
Moneyline: UCLA -133 favorite to win (bet $10 to win $17.52 total); Gonzaga -105 underdog to win (bet $10 to win $19.52 total)
Total scoring over/under: 145.5 points scored by both teams combined

GONZ 79 · UCLA 76
Gonzaga Bulldogs
UCLA Bruins

Vols on the Ball

East Region No. 4 seed Tennessee got a pretty good scare from No. 14 seed Louisiana in the first round. The Vols were up 48-30 midway through the second half, then withstood a Ragin’ Cajuns rally while hanging on for a 58-55 victory. The Vols fell well short of covering as 11.5-point favorites.

Apparently, that was the wake-up call Tennessee needed. Because the Vols then took care of business as 3.5-point underdogs against No. 5 seed Duke. Tennessee won 65-52, improving to 25-10 straight up (SU).

However, the Vols are still just 18-17 against the spread (ATS), barely above .500. But Molitor thinks Rick Barnes’ squad is worth a look as a favorite of 5/5.5 points against No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic (5.5 at FOX Bet).

"I like Tennessee laying some points and wonder if it shouldn't be closer to 6/6.5 in this one," Molitor said. "People thought Duke was underseeded, and despite what we saw last weekend, those people may not have been wrong. Tennessee clearly is better than a 4-seed, as well. And with the Vols’ depth, defense and path, I really think we'll be previewing them again next weekend."

Meanwhile, Florida Atlantic squeaked out a first-round win in the East Region’s 9-vs.-8 game. The Owls edged Memphis 66-65, and No. 1 seed Purdue was expected to be next up. But FAU got a huge break because Fairleigh Dickinson shocked the Boilermakers 63-58, only the second time in NCAA tourney history that a 16-seed beat a 1-seed.

The Owls closed as 16-point favorites against Cinderella Fairleigh Dickinson, but had to battle all the way in a 78-70 victory.

"It goes without saying that this is a tougher test than FDU. Considering the shooting numbers the Owls put up against a bottom-of-the-barrel defense, I worry that FAU will be in a world of hurt facing a true top-five defensive squad in the Volunteers on Thursday," Molitor said. "If Tennessee’s perimeter defense is as good as we've seen at times this year and shuts down the 3-point shooting of a team that relies on it, this might not be all that competitive.

"Seeing books push out to Tennessee -5.5 while the total is dropping doesn't bode well for the market's confidence in the Owls’ ability to score here."

This ‘Dog Could Bark and Bite

Molitor also has an underdog he likes on the Sweet 16 odds board: San Diego State. The fifth-seeded Aztecs narrowly snuck out a win and cover in the first round, beating No. 12 seed Charleston 63-57 as a 5.5-point favorite.

In the second round, though, San Diego State was a 4.5-point favorite and drummed Furman 75-52. And that was a Paladins team that showed No. 4 seed Virginia the exit in Round 1, with a stunning 68-67 victory.

The Aztecs now meet South Region No. 1 seed Alabama on Friday night. It’s a tall chore, but one Molitor thinks San Diego State is up for – at least against the spread.

"I continue to like Alabama to move on, but agree with the action that has come in on San Diego State, pushing the number back down from [Alabama -8] to the current levels we're seeing," Molitor said, noting the Crimson Tide are now -7.5. "Maybe due to their lack of a high-end opponent in the first weekend, the Aztecs aren't getting a ton of respect for a team that can dictate the pace with their defense.

"If they can translate what they've done all year, and all tournament so far, to a matchup versus a high-end, up-tempo offense, limit Brandon Miller's impact, and force the Tide to work deeper into the shot clock, the cover should be well within reach."

Built for the Futures

While The SuperBook is aiming to dodge a Gonzaga national title, WynnBet actually wouldn’t mind the Bulldogs finally ending up as March Madness’ top dog. Senior trader Motoi Pearson noted several teams are good to WynnBet’s ledger.

"UConn and UCLA are our highest liability up to this point. We lucked out a bit, considering they are on the same side of the bracket," Pearson said. "We do well to the rest of the field, essentially. Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, San Diego State, Gonzaga and Xavier would all be a solid result. I’m foreseeing some Michigan State love in the future, especially if the Spartans can make it past Kansas State. Not too many people can resist that Tom Izzo magic."

So how does it play out between now and April 3? Pearson isn’t making predictions, but the No. 1 overall seed has his attention.

"Alabama gets an easier ride to the Final Four on their side of the bracket," Pearson said, noting that if the Crimson Tide beat No. 5 seed San Diego State on Friday, a meeting with No. 6 seed Creighton or upstart No. 15 seed Princeton awaits in the South Region final. 

"It’s hard not to pick the Crimson Tide if they can stay healthy. I’m warmed up on Houston or Gonzaga to make it out of their side of the bracket.

"I wouldn’t be mad to see either of those teams play Alabama if it came down to it."

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I Like Big Bets and I Cannot Lie

It’s been a quiet week on the big bet front. Things will likely ramp up before Thursday’s quartet of regional semifinals. In the meantime, it’s worth reminding about some of the more interesting plays out there at this point.

In case you missed it earlier in the week, Princeton is playing the role of Cinderella this year. The Tigers hope to pick up where Saint Peter’s left off last year when the Peacocks reached the Elite Eight before losing to North Carolina. Like Saint Peter’s, Princeton is a No. 15 seed.

The Tigers are consensus 10-point underdogs for Friday’s South Region semi against No. 6 seed Creighton. But one Caesars Sportsbook customer already jumped on Princeton to go the distance, putting $2,000 on the Tigers at +20000 to win the championship. Should the impossible happen, that bettor would clear $400,000.

And of course, Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale has all his big Houston bets alive and kicking. McIngvale has a total of $3.55 million in wagers – spread across five sportsbooks – on the Cougars to lift the trophy. If Houston indeed wins out, Mack would clear about $35 million.

Those kinds of bets and that kind of win are foreign to pretty much all the rest of us. So enjoy the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight responsibly. Never bet more than you can afford to lose.

Patrick Everson is a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports and senior reporter for He is a distinguished journalist in the national sports betting space. He’s based in Las Vegas, where he enjoys golfing in 110-degree heat. Follow him on Twitter: @PatrickE_Vegas.

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