Louisville basketball and betting the Final Four

The University of Louisville has hired Chris Mack as head men’s basketball coach. News reports describe the contract as seven years at four million per. I haven’t seen any numbers on how much he’s getting from Adidas.

Some people would say the Rick Pitino era ended when he was fired last fall after a succession of scandals. I don’t think it ended until the University announced that interim coach David Padgett would not be retained a few weeks ago.

As I’ve written before, I’m a 1980 alum of U of L and I was a serious fan of the program before the University hired Pitino. I won’t belabor all of the cogent, tightly-wound, and correctly-spelled arguments for that. If you’re interested, you can see them here: https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2017/09/29/we-have-met-the-enemy-and-it-is-us/

So what about Chris Mack? Is this really a house-cleaning, high-integrity hire?

Mack came from Xavier, which consistently posts excellent Academic Progress Rate (APR) numbers. He’s almost a Louisville guy, having married a Louisville native and residing in Northern Kentucky while he coached at Xavier. It appears he has no ties at all to Ricky (The Prince of Darkness) Pitino, and he apparently ran a clean program in Cincinnati.

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One minor concern is a reference to one of Mack’s players in the burgeoning shoe money scandal that forced U of L to finally cut ties with Pitino. The player reportedly received $7,000 from an agent while playing at Xavier. But that’s a far cry from systematic corruption or the repeated scandals that Louisville is trying to escape. And it’s at least plausible that Mack had no knowledge of the payment.

He can certainly recruit Indiana players. Over the past few years, two of the best in the state (Trevon Bluiett and Paul Scruggs) have played for him at Xavier. Scruggs concerns me a little. While writing Thirty-Two Minutes in March I learned that Scruggs was in the Crispus Attucks program in Indianapolis before suddenly appearing at Southport High School for his freshman year. With Indiana’s open enrollment law, there’s nothing improper about that. But then for his senior season he left Southport and enrolled at Pro Prep in California, which isn’t even a school. It’s a basketball program that arranges for classes elsewhere.

Again, nothing improper about this. Necessarily. But it smells like everything that’s wrong with college basketball.

Then again, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not 1954. The high school and college athletics landscape isn’t what it used to be. What is?

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as much a fan of UL basketball as I once was. I’ve sent three of my kids to Indiana University and spent more on their education in one semester than I did in four years at Louisville. But I won’t actively root against the Cardinals at this point. If Mack proves to be the stand-up guy he appears to be, and the University shows that they’re committed to running a clean program, I can support them.

                                                                               *****

We made our annual March Madness trip to Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The basketball betting was up and down, but we went 3-2 on our sweet sixteen wagers we made before heading to the airport. We cashed on Villanova -5.5 vs. West Virginia, the Loyola moneyline at plus-120 against Nevada and Syracuse plus 11.5 versus Puke. Our losses were a moneyline bet on Clemson against Kansas and Purdue minus 1.5 versus Texas Tech.    

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

In the Final Four this weekend, Loyola is getting five and a half against Michigan, and Villanova is a five-point favorite over Kansas. I could present a detailed statistical analysis for picks here, but that kind of thinking put me into a -1200 unit hole during our NCAA pool. I only started to recover when I picked games based on gut instinct. So that’s what I’m doing here.

Loyola’s a great story, but I think Michigan is the kind of team that would give them trouble, so I’d lay the points before I’d take them. Nova looks unstoppable to me, but I don’t think they’re five points better than Kansas. Which sets up a Michigan-Villanova final. I’d like to pick a Big Ten team here, but I think Nova is just too good. A final of 80-72 sounds about right.   

 

Getting almost as much for a lot less in Vegas

Just a couple weeks from today, the NCAA tournament selection show will air, and two days later I’ll board a plane with a few friends headed west to Las Vegas.

Thirteen years ago, the Fear and Loathing Athletic Club Fantasy Football League began a tradition of spring practice in Vegas for March Madness. We were all working men with kids in high school and college back then, so frugality was a major concern. We never slept more than two to a room, but we refused to pay retail for anything. We’d typically arrive on Wednesday morning and then leave on Saturday to avoid the most expensive hotel night.

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One year we all got free airfare through a promotion by Wendy’s. All you had to do was collect 75 stickers from Wendy’s soft drink cups and mail them in for free roundtrip airfare from the now-defunct Independence Air. Most of us weren’t willing to rummage around in trash cans for cups (looking at you, Charlie), but at about $1 per drink we still got the tickets for less than $100 (not including the cost to our bladders).

Kids graduating college and moving out of the house have eased some of the financial pressure, but we still use coupons and exploit special deals that we find online. We don’t gamble enough to score free rooms, but we still get discounts and book early to minimize the cost. Now, obviously, we don’t stay in the trendy, night-clubby hotels on the strip. (Though last year I did get 1.5 free nights at the Mirage through a Facebook promotion.) But when you spend 80% of your time outside the room, it’s a waste to pay more for an upgraded hotel.

Like everything else, the cost of going to Vegas has risen over the years. A lot of the casinos have even tightened up on free cocktails, which disrupts one of our favorite approaches to watching basketball. In days past, when the sports books were packed we’d make our bets and then adjourn to the casino bar to play video poker –  very slowly – as we watched TV and soaked up free drinks.

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Photo by Joe Gauder

But there are still ways to save money on a trip. We always buy the two main coupon books (Las Vegas Advisor and American Casino Guide), which quickly pay for themselves with half-price meals, gambling match plays, slot free-play, and free drinks. We still share rooms, and book our flights as early as possible. There’s a page for March Madness in Las Vegas on Facebook that gives details on free watch parties that include match play coupons, T-shirts, etc.

To maximize efficiency in using coupons, I draft an itinerary for each day. Though we always go off script a few times to watch our favorite teams, it’s a good tool to avoid having six guys standing around deferring to each other on where to go next. For example, here’s the plan for Wednesday on this year’s trip. (No basketball games on that day.)

Wednesday, March 15

9:00 AM……………………..Breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go (CET comps)

10:00 AM…………………….Poker tournament at Harrah’s OR Flamingo

1:00 PM……………………..Gold Coast/Palms/Rio (GC Senior Wednesday drawing at 4:30)

6:00 PM……………………..Dinner at Hard Rock ($7.77 Gamblers Special)

7:00 PM……………………..Double Down Saloon

8:00 PM.…………………….Ellis Island match plays

Since breakfast and dinner are often buffets, we only plan two meals a day. Hash House A-Go-Go is not a buffet, but serves huge portions (think platter-sized waffles and 36-oz. Bloody Marys). Though there are no coupons available, we use the minimal comp dollars we generate gambling to cut the cost. We usually hit the Gold Coast at some point anyway, so we might as well go when there’s a cash drawing for seniors. The gambler’s special at the Hard Rock is a decent steak and shrimp dinner for less than $8. Then we wind up at Ellis island to exploit a number of match play coupons from our books ($10 free slot play, $10 table game match play, and $25 free bet).  

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If you know where to look (and we do), there are free shuttle buses to get between the strip and off-strip casinos. If you don’t want to wait around for the shuttle, Lyft is a cheap alternative to taxis.

So if you put in a little effort and it doesn’t embarrass you to use coupons, you can still have a fun, reasonably-priced trip to Vegas. As long as you don’t drink alcohol while playing No-Limit Texas Hold’ Em. Trust me on this.   

 

 

    

“Hello; Comcast? Yeah, I’d like to request you show the Savannah State game.”

As of today, I am a big fan of Savannah State University basketball.

The Tigers play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and their coach is Horace Broadnax. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because Broadnax played for Georgetown during the glory years of Hoya basketball, winning a national championship in 1984. After graduation, he want on to earn a law degree, but signed on as coach of Savannah State in 2005.                                        

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(Note: all of the following statistical data comes from Ken Pomeroy’s excellent website kenpom.com. If you’re a serious college basketball fan (or a serious college basketball wagering fan), you should go there and subscribe immediately. In addition to all the stats, Pomeroy writes an entertaining blog about college hoops and provides a perspective you can’t get anywhere else.)  

Saying that the Tigers have been defensive-minded under Broadnax is like saying Kentucky has attracted good recruiting classes. Over the past few years, Savannah has twice limited teams to fewer than 42 points – and still lost. They hold the NCAA record for fewest points in a half (four). They’ve accomplished these milestones by slowing the game down to a crawl, ranking 337th in the country in offensive tempo (possessions per 40 minutes of play) in 2013.

But it seems Coach Broadnax has, to put it mildly, had a change of heart. So far this year, they are playing at the second-fastest tempo in the country (82). If they keep up their current rate of three-point attempts, they will set an NCAA record. They rank 345th – out of 351 – in defensive efficiency.

I haven’t seen this team play (though I’m closely following the schedule, hoping they’ll pop up on one of the lesser ESPN channels (like maybe “The Ocho”). But I believe it’ll be like watching a pickup game at the Y, only with D-1 college athletes.

So why is Broadnax doing this? I sent him an email to ask for an interview a couple of days ago, but haven’t heard back yet. The Tigers are ineligible for the NCAA tournament this year due to a lack of academic progress. (There’s only one other school – Alcorn State – suffering this penalty in 2016.) So maybe he thinks this is a throwaway year, and he might as well experiment with a 180-degree change in his philosophy. It could be that he’s using it as a recruiting angle for future seasons; “Hey kid, look at all the freedom I give my players!”        

But the old CYO coach in me thinks it’s just fatigue. It’s hard to get kids to work on defense. It’s kind of boring, and, in today’s immediate-gratification society, you don’t see the benefits of the other team missing shots until the end of the game. Casual fans often don’t appreciate the work on the defensive end; many would rather watch their team lose 88-86 than see them win 56-50. And you’re not getting on Sportscenter by working your way into good position, cutting off a drive, and making your man pass the ball.

So I wonder if Broadnax just said to himself, “I don’t need this. I’m working my ass off every day, trying to make these kids focus on the right things, and for what? So we can play in the MEAC tournament, get on ESPN 3 for the Tuesday morning final, then go home even if we win it? Let’s put up shots, let the kids have some fun, and get through this dismal season”.

In their last game, the Tigers scored 59 points, but gave up 128 to Oregon. Their next contest is December 11 at Oregon State. They’re not on the ESPN schedule, but sometimes games get shifted around. Still hoping to catch my Tigers on the Ocho.  

*****

A couple more book promotion events coming up:

On Monday, December 12 I’ll be on the radio at about 11:30 AM with Coach Ron Hecklinski on Indiana SRN sports talk radio at http://indianasrn.org/. Even if you’re tired of hearing me talk about the book, it’s always fun to hear Coach Heck. He’s the best!

On Tuesday, December 13 I’ll be on WCSI Columbus (1010 AM) at 8:30 AM to talk about the book and the signing on Thursday at Viewpoint Books in Columbus.