Ah, futures bets. That old wagering proposition that for the house looks like easy money, easy bait for drunks rolling through the sports book at two in the morning and says to himself "Hey, I went to UC-Irvine! You mean if I put $100 on them to win the tournament, I would get back $50,000?!? GO ANTEATERS!!"
Most of the time futures bets prey on the propensity of amateur bettors to throw something against the wall and see what sticks. But occasionally, you get the sophisticated bettor, who knows value when he sees it, and then decides to take fat cash and throw down.
And that's when it gets interesting. And potentially magical. And with one particular wagerer this Final Four weekend, that's where we sit.
His name is Derek Stevens, and he is the owner of a casino (actually a few hotels, as well) in downtown Las Vegas. Back in early December, Stevems took a walk over to the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, and asked to put down $20,000 on the Michigan State Spartans to win the national championship at odds of 50/1.
To provide some perspective, this was a big enough wager for the sports book at the Golden Nugget to seek the approval of the biggest boss in the company, owner Tilman Fertitta. It would also end up being, by far, the largest payout on one wager in the history of that establishment.
And it probably felt fine to the Nugget at the time they made it. And it probably felt great when Michigan State was muddling through the early part of the season. And it probably felt orgasmic when the Spartans lost to Texas Southern University in mid December at home.
But then, a funny thing happened, and it was the exact thing Stevens (ironically, a lifelong Michigan Wolverine fan) was probably counting on when he made the bet -- Izzo's team started doing Izzo things. They kept grinding and mucking and mucking and grinding until they came within one bad minute of winning the Big Ten.
Their body of work was enough to get a seven seed in the NCAA tournament. Honestly, it was probably enough for better than that, but the committee clearly under seeded Sparty. That's ok, though, because what they were denied seed-wise the committee made up for it by putting them in the region with the softest one and two seeds.
And now here they are, Michigan State in the Final Four. And the Golden Nugget staring down the barrel of a million dollar payout. March Madness is the best! Now for this weekend's picks...
Duke -5 over Michigan State Too bad for Derek Stevens, his futures ticket dies on Saturday night. To my earlier point, Michigan State has had a fairly favorable draw for a seven seed, catching a two seed in Virginia that is tailor made to be upset, a three seed in Oklahoma that was decent but beatable, and a four seed in Louisville that was missing its best offensive player (Chirs Jones, dismissed from the team). Unlike Utah and Gonzaga, who both had capable seven footers, Michigan State has no answer for Jahlil Okafor. Add to this the fact that Justise Winslow might be the best player in the tournament right now, and I think Duke marches on and covers. I trust Duke's outside shooting to have at least one run that will put daylight between them and Sparty.
Kentucky -5 over Wisconsin Of all the teams in the tournament, Wisconsin might be the toughest matchup for Kentucky, with multiple capable bigs with shooting range and experience, led by Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky. Public confidence in Wisconsin was reflected in the fact that the Badgers opened as a 6.5 underdog and got pounded by bettors, moving the line all the way to 5. I just think Kentucky got its wake up call against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, and that Indianapolis will be the stage where they put it all together. That said, I took Wisconsin in my bracket just so I wouldn't have my sheet in the "I picked Kentucky, too" crowd. So either way, I'm a winner!
Unless Kentucky wins by less than five. I need to see what Derek Stevens thinks....