In an NCAA tournament with a record number of upsets and buzzer-beaters, who came away the biggest winner from the first four days? Not surprisingly, it was the Las Vegas sportsbooks.
The Westgate SuperBook and Wynn sportsbook each said record amounts were wagered on the beginning of the tournament. The SuperBook was up 40 percent in handle from last season. More than $750,000 was bet on the Kentucky-Indiana game alone at sportsbook operator CG Technology, which runs the shops at the Venetian, Cosmopolitan and other casinos.
The books kept plenty of it, but it wasn't a smooth ride. The house got off to a monster start Thursday but had to withstand a weekend rally from bettors who had the bookmakers sweating Sunday night's crazy finishes.
At one point Sunday afternoon, Jay Rood, MGM vice president of race and sports, looked at his computer screen and realized danger lurked. If heavily bet favorites Oklahoma, Xavier and Oregon all covered the spread, his shop would suffer a loss for the first four full days of the NCAA tournament. You'll never guess what happened next.
In typical Vegas fashion, the Sooners, Musketeers and Ducks all failed to cover the spread, and the MGM and the majority of sportsbooks in town enjoyed a giant finish to a wild first four days of March Madness.
Thursday produced one of the largest single-day wins -- other than the Super Bowl -- for the MGM and Golden Nugget books. It was fueled by Yale's upset of Baylor, one of the largest decisions of the first four days of the tournament for the house.
The books' hot start continued early Friday with Middle Tennessee's upset of Michigan State and Oklahoma failing to cover the spread against Cal State Bakersfield producing big wins for the house.
Things turned during the Friday evening slate, most notably in the Michigan-Notre Dame matchup. In the hours leading up to Notre Dame-Michigan, 85 percent of the money wagered at William Hill's Nevada sportsbook was on the Irish.
"We were up huge," said Chris Andrews, a longtime Nevada oddsmaker and now the sportsbook director at the South Point casino. "Those last four [Friday] games just killed us."
Indiana's upset of Kentucky saved the books from a disastrous Saturday. It was the most heavily bet game of Saturday's slate, with the bulk of the money on the Wildcats. Nearly three times more was bet on the Hoosiers, according to Jason Simbal, CG Technology vice president of race and sports.
"That was the best game for us," Simbal said. "We handled more to that game than [any] other, and that was the biggest win for us. It was No. 1 of the games that went our way."
Simbal added that CG Technology took only one five-figure bet on the Kentucky-Indiana game and still racked up around three-quarters of a million dollars in handle.
Andrews said if Kentucky would have covered his shop would have "been beaten up pretty good." William Hill director of trading Nick Bogdanovich described Saturday's as a "player's day" overall, and the Wynn's Johnny Avello said it was not a good day for his shop.
Sunday also got off to a rough start for the books, with heavily bet Villanova crushing Iowa in the opener. Notre Dame's one-point win over Stephen F. Austin also hurt the house and set up some make-or-break games on the Sunday evening slate.
Facing significant parlay liability on favorites Oklahoma, Xavier and Oregon, almost every shop was rooting for underdogs Virginia Commonwealth, Wisconsin and St. Joseph's. Rood said seven times more money was bet on Xavier than Wisconsin at MGM. And the SuperBook was lopsided on Xavier and Oregon, as well.
"We definitely need to win one of those games or it's going to be a really bad day," Ed Salmons of the SuperBook said Sunday afternoon.
Luckily for the books, all three games went their way.
Through Sunday's game, 24 favorites and 24 underdogs had covered the spread. Twelve of the 48 games were decided by three points or less of the point spread.