Thoughts from UMBC’s Stunning Win, Plus Saturday NCAA Tournament Picks/Analysis

Word has long been out on Las Vegas serving as the place to be during the first week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Every casino with a sports book holds an event, and lines to bet often rival those at ritzy nightclubs (except these lines actually move and you may get something out of your investment).

What happened Friday night only served to emphasize that point further. 1-vs.-16 games aren’t the most fun to bet on. Most major sports books don’t even offer money lines for those games, and point spreads are often in the 20’s. Prior to this year, top seeds were 132-0 against the perceived runts of the litter, only occasionally being driven to the point of having to work for a victory.

And then, UMBC came along, and this year’s tournament suddenly ascended to a level that had never been seen before.

This wasn’t the plucky, lovable upstarts from Hickory High eking out a one-point victory to win the state title. No, this was Delta Tau Chi raising holy hell on Faber College’s homecoming parade. UMBC didn’t heroically stick with Virginia for 39 minutes before running a miracle play at the buzzer. The Retrievers systematically destroyed the Cavaliers, solving the ACC champs’ relentless defense with 16 assists on 26 made fields goals while outrebounding their opponents 33-22. Mind you, this was a squad that lost to an average UAlbany team by the score of 83-39 earlier this season, and one that was down nine points with less than nine minutes to go in a true road event that doubled as the America East championship game.

This is the fifth year my dad and I have made the trip to the desert for the first two rounds of March Madness. We didn’t have money on the game, and we watched most of it from a restaurant between Flamingo and The Linq. In the second half, when the Retrievers couldn’t miss, the entire place was rocking with gasps and shrieks. Through all of the talk about how a 16-seed would eventually win a first-round game, it seemed as though we were all stunned that it was actually happening.

This was underscored by what happened in the last minute. In that moment, there was no hooting and hollering. Nobody had winning tickets to celebrate. This wasn’t a great gambling moment, like so many games have already been this year. This was a seminal sports moment, certainly the greatest upset in the history of college basketball, and it was as if we all decided to savor it.

One note on Virginia before we move to plays for Saturday: It’s entirely possible that program has been on the receiving end of the two most shocking defeats in college basketball. Their loss to Chaminade in the 1980’s looms large as well, and while it takes a snake-bitten program to take the top two spots on that dubious list, it’s tough to argue anything else threatens that pair of inglorious moments.

The tournament moves on without them, as it also does for traditional power Arizona and fan favorite Wichita State. The round of 32 kicks off Saturday, and while it’s appealing to back prospective Cinderella stories once again, I’m taking the stance that the slate of games offers several chances for college basketball to experience a reversion to the mean.

#3 Tennessee -5 ½ over #11 Loyola-Chicago
#5 Kentucky -5 ½ over #13 Buffalo

It isn’t that I like being a killjoy (though others may disagree with that), but both of these games have very similar storylines. Loyola-Chicago and Buffalo are far from powerhouse programs, but they won in fun ways. The Ramblers beat the buzzer in knocking off Miami, while Buffalo played a perfect second half in dispatching Arizona.

With that in mind, sentimental money has certainly come in. Both of these lines opened at -6 and dropped down, which stuns me. While it’s fun to root with one’s heart, I’m betting with my head. I think the two SEC teams are simply much better than their opponents, so I’ll give the points and hope for blowouts.

#4 Gonzaga vs. #5 Ohio State: OVER 143

Gonzaga could not have POSSIBLY played worse against UNC Greensboro. In that 68-64 win, the Bulldogs went 5-for-23 from three-point range and 13-for-25 from the free throw line. They did just enough to get by, and with that clunker out of their systems, I think they’ve got a real chance of snapping back into a groove. Ohio State, meanwhile, prevailed in one of the most fun games of the tournament, an 81-73 shootout against South Dakota State. Still, by the numbers, the Buckeyes weren’t all that efficient. They shot 37.5% from the floor, prevailing in large part thanks to the Jackrabbits’ inability to get anyone but Mike Daum going (he was 9-for-20, while everyone else went 15-for-43).

What I’m saying here is that both offenses have a lot to build on, and because of that, a 143-point total seems low. I’ll happily take the over and hope for a shootout between two teams that can certainly provide one.

A Degenerate’s Guide to Las Vegas

There are a few undeniable truths in our society, and this article revolves around one of them. That truth is a simple one, and it’s one you simply cannot challenge.

For a degenerate gambler, Las Vegas is the greatest city in the world.

I’m headed to the desert later this week for a few days. My dad and I do a few trips each year, and this one celebrates Thanksgiving and both of our birthdays. In my trips, I’ve been fortunate enough to see and do a lot in town, and this column consists of several lists, a few stories, and some tips if you’re making your way there. If you think there’s something I missed, tweet me at @AndrewChampagne. I’ll be writing a few articles from my hotel room at Flamingo, and if you think I’ve missed something or are curious about something in town, buzz me.

On with the show!

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THE BEST BUFFETS IN TOWN

1) Bacchanal, Caesars Palace
2) The Buffet, Wynn
3) The Buffet, Bellagio
4) Carnival World Buffet, Rio
5) Le Village Buffet, Paris

I love buffets, especially when someone else is paying (hi, Dad!). The best buffets have a wide selection of tremendous food, and you can gorge to your stomach’s content.

Bacchanal at Caesars Palace isn’t just one of the best buffets in Vegas. It’s one of the best restaurants in Vegas regardless of genre. It’s not cheap, and if you go at the wrong time, you’ll be waiting in line for a while (this is Caesars, after all). However, once you get in, you’re treated to a smorgasbord of stuff, and all of it is outstanding (especially the dessert section).

Wynn and Bellagio flip-flop at the second and third spots with pretty much every trip I make. Wynn is probably better if you can stomach the lines and the trip there, but Bellagio is darned close, especially if you’re staying on the southern end of the Strip and don’t want to go all the way up to Wynn.

Rio’s buffet checks in at the fourth spot. If you like seafood, you may rank it higher; personally, I’m not much for seafood, but the rest of the buffet does enough elsewhere to get on this list. The top five is rounded out by Paris, and that’s a bit of a shame, because it used to rank with Wynn and Bellagio. It’s still good, and it’s by far the best fully-participating buffet in the 24-hour buffet deal Caesar’s properties offer, but they’ve recently downsized their food options, and that’s a bummer.

Honorable mentions: Wicked Spoon (Cosmopolitan; I’m not much for the feel of the property, but the buffet is good), Flavors (Harrah’s; better for lunch than for dinner given the fare offered, but the extensive dessert selection is a big plus), Cravings (Mirage; nothing exceptional, but solid and consistent).

Dishonorable mentions: Paradise Garden (Flamingo; as recently as five years ago, this was an OK option, but it’s gone downhill sharply), The Buffet at TI (Treasure Island; I’ve gotten sick here and am in no hurry to go back, which is a shame because I love gambling here), Excalibur Buffet (Excalibur; no, just no).

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THE CASINOS/PARTS OF CASINOS I MISS

1) The old O’Shea’s
2) Poker room, The Linq
3) Poker room, Luxor
4) The old sports book, Caesar’s Palace
5) Bill’s

The only similarities between the new O’Shea’s and the old one (which was torn down a few years ago to make room for The Linq’s expansion) are the name and the leprechauns. In fact, my father took video of a publicity stunt just before O’Shea’s closed. Leprechauns in full costume paraded around the front door with picket signs saying “SAVE O’SHEA’S,” and it’s just as funny as it sounds.

Anyway, while management threw O’Shea’s lovers a bone with the new wing of The Linq, it’s not the same. It’s overly loud, the acoustics are terrible, it attracts people who have no idea how to play the games they offer, and while the 24/7 spread of $5 blackjack is a plus, it’s actually more fun (for me, at least) to play that game inside The Linq than it is to play at O’Shea’s.

Back when it was known as The Quad, The Linq had a four-table poker room that ran cheap poker tournaments every three hours. The quality of opposition was pretty bad, and you could do pretty well there just by playing smart. Unfortunately, they closed the room to put slot machines in that space.

Upper management has also closed the poker room at Luxor, and that was a bummer when I went there earlier this year. They used to give players who made final tables at tournaments small toys shaped like the Luxor’s pyramid, complete with a button at the bottom that lit the top up as a laser pointer. I still have mine, and it makes for a toy that drives my cat nuts.

Caesar’s Palace has done a great job renovating their sports book. However, one of the things they did at the outset of that renovation was stick a bar right in front of the seating area, and that really hurt the mood of the place. You used to be able to use that space to congregate and mingle with whoever passed by, and that created a familial atmosphere of sorts. Placing the bar where they did took a lot of the charm away from the book, and while they’re working to get it back, it can’t be the same as it was before.

We’ll close the list with Bill’s, which was renovated and relaunched as The Cromwell a few years back. Bill’s had no frills (catchy, huh?), and it knew exactly what it was. It was a haven for degenerate gamblers who wanted fun for cheap, complete with ample $5 blackjack and very bad karaoke. On my first trip to Vegas in 2010, I walked into the building and sat down, looking to kill time. In succession, I watched a group of women butcher “Come On Eileen” by not knowing any words besides the chorus, followed by the whitest guy in three counties (which was somehow not me) nailing every word to “The Humpty Dance.” Try as it might, The Cromwell can’t recapture that magic.

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FUN PLACES TO GAMBLE FOR CHEAP ON THE STRIP

1) Casino Royale
2) Treasure Island
3) Flamingo
4) Harrah’s
5) The Cromwell

If you’ve never heard of Casino Royale, it’s not surprising. Casino Royale isn’t on the front page of any Vegas tourism brochures. The building’s sort of a dump, and it also houses a Denny’s and a White Castle as opposed to a Ruth’s Chris or a Morton’s. However, Casino Royale is one of only a few casinos in town that houses a blackjack switch table (that sound you hear is my father banging his head against either a desk or a nearby wall at the mere mention of this game).

Never played it? It’s a gas. You get to play two hands at once, and the name comes from the player’s ability to switch the top two cards. In return, all blackjacks are treated the same as any other 21 (you get paid even-money, rather than 6/5 or 3/2 odds), and all dealer 22’s are pushes. If you can stomach those two quirks (and at $5, they’re palatable), it’s a very fun game, and you can make money by playing for pushes and hoping the dealer busts. If that’s not your speed, they’ve also got other variants of card games, a sports book that offers fun prop bets, and, for the low-cost beer connoisseurs out there, $1 bottles of Michelob.

Fellow horseplayers know Treasure Island as the home of the National Handicapping Championship, and it’s one of my favorite places to gamble. There’s a great mix of people, which means that your odds of finding a good blackjack table where everyone works together are good. During slow times, they’ll offer $5 blackjack, and a good portion of those games use a standard shoe (rather than an auto-shuffler). Some of them even offer 3/2 payouts on blackjack, which stands out when most of the neighbors are offering 6/5. Just stay away from the buffet.

Flamingo is a frequent base of operations for yours truly. You can’t beat the location, and the offerings inside are reasonable. The poker room usually has cheap, beatable games going, $10 blackjack is spread around the casino, and while the race and sports book won’t win any awards, the chairs are comfortable and there are plenty of screens. The one negative is that their grandfather clause isn’t friendly to players. If you’re lucky enough to find a $5 blackjack table at most places, you’ll get that limit until you get up from the table. Here, you get a shoe or two after the limits go up, and then you must play for the elevated minimum. That’s a real downer, but other than that, it’s a fun time.

Harrah’s is pretty similar (which makes sense, given that both Harrah’s and Flamingo are owned by the same parent company). Of note, their race and sports book, while a bit small, is underrated. There are many comfortable chairs, and the atmosphere is fun. They’ll occasionally spread a few $5 blackjack games, too, and they run a fun bounty tournament in the poker room from time to time as well.

I’ve mentioned that The Cromwell replaced Bill’s, and while that’s a bummer, the updated property does boast $5 blackjack. Additionally, during busy times, the “sports book” is the best-kept secret in the city. There’s no place to watch the games, just a few lonely betting windows. However, this works to the benefit of the gambler that knows what action he or she wants. You can get in and out very quickly, and that’s a godsend sometimes.

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FUN PLACES OFF THE STRIP

1) Rio
2) Palms
3) Hard Rock
4) Golden Nugget
5) Binion’s

Rio is the home of the World Series of Poker, and even if you’re not playing, there’s nothing quite like walking through the huge halls where tournaments and side games are being played. It’s a ton of fun, and the casino itself isn’t too bad once you know where you’re going.

Palms was much more fun about five years ago. Some of the shine’s come off the place, but it’s still not a bad casino to stop at. They’ve spread blackjack switch in the past, which helps, and table limits are usually reasonable.

I wanted to rank Hard Rock higher on this list. I’ve had fun here, and my very first time in Vegas saw me come here and win a decent chunk of change playing blackjack. However, the casino has changed since then. The limits have gone way up, and it’s upsetting to make a trip over here and not feel comfortable playing anything.

Fremont Street is a fun alternative to the Strip, and Golden Nugget and Binion’s are two of the most well-known properties in that neck of the woods. Golden Nugget is the most high-end property in that neighborhood, and if you want to feel like a big shot while not spending the necessary money to actually BE a big shot, this is a decent spot to do it. One note, though: Cell phone service is garbage inside the casino.

Binion’s is not exactly what it was 15 years ago, when it hosted the World Series of Poker and became the epicenter of the poker boom when Chris Moneymaker won it and spawned a legion of wannabes (self included). However, from an “if walls could talk” perspective, it’s an incredible place to stop at. The casino’s poker room houses a wall of photos of past WSOP main event winners, there’s a card table signed by past champions, and you can get your picture taken with a million dollars. If you want a sense of “old Vegas,” this is a must-stop.

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TWO HORRIBLE BLACKJACK DEALER STORIES

– On one of my first trips to Vegas, I walked into The Mirage and spotted a $5 blackjack table. I texted my dad to let him know where I was, and the ever-personable dealer, whose table I hadn’t even sat down at, looked up and grunted, “DON’T EVEN THINK OF DOING THAT AT MY TABLE.”

Most of the time, this would be grounds for bolting from the premises. However, I’m overly competitive, so I sat down and proceeded to go on a ridiculous run where I won $80 in one shoe. The dealer was, shall we say, very displeased every time he paid me, and he didn’t say more than two or three words the whole time.

On the last hand of the shoe, he dealt me 20, and then drew a four-card 21 to beat me. He looked at me as if to say, “I’ve got you now,” to which I responded, “Color me up, please.” His jaw dropped in horror as if I’d just spilled my drink all over the table, and I’ve never played blackjack there since.

– New York New York advertises $5 blackjack at all hours, so I went down one day. It’s not my favorite spot to begin with. It’s a ways away from pretty much anywhere else on the Strip, for one, and a lot of the place just seems cheesy (although there’s a sports bar there that’s actually a pretty fun place). However, $5 blackjack is $5 blackjack, so I made the trip. I wish I hadn’t.

I sat down to play, and the dealer showed a six. A player asked for advice on what to do with her hand, and the dealer purposely ignored her. She asked the table what to do, and I told her to stay (since she could bust and the dealer had the worst up-card possible). Doing this got me a dirty look from the dealer, but I thought nothing of it.

She left a few minutes later, and suddenly, the dealer started mouthing off about how, and I’m quoting, “nobody is going to tell MY PLAYERS what to do.” Are you kidding? She asked for advice, I gave her advice, and I’m the scummy one here? Much like Mirage, I left that day and haven’t played blackjack there since.

BASIC TIPS FOR A FIRST-TIME VEGAS VISITOR

– When approaching a blackjack table mid-shoe, always ask if you can sit down, rather than simply barging in. This is simply good manners. If it’s a table with an auto-shuffler, it’s a bit more of a gray area, but I tend to ask anyway out of habit.

– Never split 10’s at a blackjack table. It will ruin table karma, and anything done out of greed in that town rarely ends well.

– If you’re going to a sports book to place a bet, know what you want to do before you get to the betting window. This is a pet peeve of any sports bettor, especially if it’s close to game time.

– No matter what else you do on your trip, go out of your way to see the Bellagio fountains at least once. It’s the coolest free show in town.