A Final Four of big bets, busted brackets

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by Tim Dahberg
AP Sports Columnist

(AP)—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 ticket.”

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CINDERELLA—Virginia Commonwealth University head basketball coach Shaka Smart answers questions during a news conference March 29. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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 title. 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 9-2 odds.

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 professional oddsmakers.

Add Butler to the mix, and even the wise guys are scratching their heads.

“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 asked.

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 or another.

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 2½-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.”

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