Bad beats: Why there's no such thing as a meaningless shot

Sometimes the gambling gods don't smile on your wager. ESPN Illustration

The NCAA tournament has earned the moniker "March Madness" over the years thanks to its wild upsets and buzzer-beaters. But unless a truly historic team wins, each year's tournament is mostly remembered for its surprises and dramatic finishes, rather than the eventual champion. Not every year can be like last year's perfect storm of Villanova shocking the favored North Carolina Tar Heels with a buzzer-beater to win the championship.

When it comes to gambling, though, buzzer-beaters have a close competitor for defining moments: the bad beat.

What is a bad beat? Well, the easiest definition is a shot that affects the spread or total late in the game, when the result of the game has already been decided.

With 67 games, the focused attention of the gambling public and lopsided contests in which only the point spread and totals are in doubt, March Madness may be home to more bad beats than any other high-profile sporting event.

And if you've experienced one, you surely remember it like it was yesterday.

But bad beats are no longer just a bettor's own private nightmare. With the growing national acceptance of gambling, the bad beat may finally be ready for its One Shining Moment.

On the verge of this year's tournament, we take a holistic look at the world of the bad beat: from its growing national coverage, to memories of both oddsmakers and bettors, to why we remember them so vividly to a look back at the most expensive bad beat in NCAA tournament history (look away UConn backers).

Growing coverage

In 2015's South Region Sweet 16, the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils closed as consensus 5-point favorites against the fifth-seeded Utah Utes. With the game in hand (Duke up by five with a defensive rebound secured by Quinn Cook), Utah's Brandon Taylor took an unnecessary swipe at Cook as he dribbled the clock out. The buzzer sounded, coaches shook hands and the players started walking off the court. However, the refs ruled that a foul had occurred with 0.7 seconds left. Cook hit one of two free throws and Duke improbably covered the spread.

In previous years, the postgame coverage of this bad beat probably would've been reserved to a couple tweets by those in the gambling community. But by 2015, it necessitated stories on many national outlets, as well as several SportsCenter hits the next day about how much money changed hands in Vegas.

Perhaps nothing has grown the prominence of bad beats across all sports as much as a recurring segment on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. In the planning stages prior to the show's launch early last fall, producer Thomas DeCorte says that the staff talked about using recurring segments to define the show's new look.

DeCorte told me over the phone: "We wanted to create repeatable moments. The concept of our show is to tell stories in unique and interesting ways."

Highlighting bad beats was one of the first ideas floated, as recapping games in which the suspense is related to gambling spreads rather than the game's outcome expands the universe of possible stories for the show. The segment has worked; DeCorte says he is constantly approached by people that don't bet on games but still enjoy the segment and Van Pelt's obvious enthusiasm.

Bad beats hurt both sides of the counter

Before point spreads became a common language among sports fans and media, bad beats tended to get lost in the sands of time. But that certainly doesn't mean individual bettors or bookmakers forgot about the times they were burned.

Chris Fallica -- known to college football fans as "The Bear" from ESPN's College GameDay -- is still scarred from an early-round tournament game from 1996, in which the 6-seed Louisville Cardinals advanced over the 11-seed Tulsa Golden Hurricane (+3.5).

Tulsa held a 12-point lead with 3 minutes, 41 seconds left but the Louisville rallied and forced overtime. A back-and-forth extra period led to a 3-point lead for the Cardinals with 11 seconds left. A Hurricane turnover sealed the Cardinals' win but doesn't tell the whole story. In those final 11 seconds, the Cardinals' lead ballooned to five before ending as an 82-80 win, with Tulsa covering the 3.5-point spread.

Following two made Cardinal free throws, Kordell Love of Tulsa hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Fallica's memory is of the 3-pointer actually coming after the final buzzer but contemporary news articles end with the turnover and no video exists on the Internet. It took the sports information offices of the schools involved to validate that the game did end with a 3-pointer and a search through ESPN's archives to unearth the video that confirms Fallica's memory.

It is in this way that bad beats often live on only in the memories of gamblers invested in them.

Even when the loss isn't quite as dramatic as the above examples, a bad loss will remain stuck in a gambler's memory. Alan Boston, a professional gambler, still remembers his first painful loss -- Arkansas Little-Rock against North Carolina State in 1986. The underdog Trojans surrendered a 5-point lead to the Wolfpack in a first overtime period, and then ultimately lost by 14 in a second overtime. Boston remembers betting Arkansas Little-Rock as an "11- or 12-point underdog " and though he has seen many bad beats over the years, the Arkansas Little-Rock game still stings. "It sticks with me the most -- because it was the first," he told me.

While bettors lament game endings that go against them, for many sportsbooks, a bad beat isn't relative to a single game but rather futures. Futures bets, typically laid before the tournament, are on the winner of the whole tournament, rather than any single game. Given the lower probability of a team winning six straight games in the tournament, the payouts are significantly higher.

For example, the teams with the lowest current odds to win this year's national title are the Duke Blue Devils and Kansas Jayhawks ($10 wagered would win $50) as compared to a standard pay-out of $10 for every $11 bet against the point spread in a single game.

Thanks to these future bets, South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews doesn't remember shots taken after the game was decided as bad beats, but rather some of the most iconic plays in tournament history.

In 1995, UCLA's Tyus Edny took an inbounds pass with seconds left, sprinted down the court and hit an awkward layup as time expired to beat Missouri. The No. 1-seeded Bruins would go on to win the national title that year and Andrews, who was the sportsbook manager at the Cal Neva casino at the time, may be one of few that consider the Edny shot a bad beat thanks to a large liability on UCLA winning the title. For him, the almost-upset was more painful than any single spread-covering shot could be. "UCLA really stuck it to me," he says.

Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino, recalls the liability of a surprising tournament run more than any single game loss -- specifically, VCU's improbable Final Four trip in 2011. Starting in one of the First Four play-in games, Kornegay recalls that the Rams were as high as 3,000-1 to win the title (his memory underserves the exposure, he actually had one 5,000-1 ticket on VCU). The pre-tournament bets on the Rams became increasingly concerning for Kornegay as win after win piled up. Thankfully for him, VCU finally fell to Butler in the national semifinal.

The psychology behind the bad beat

Gamble for long enough and games tend to blur. However, bad beat memories seem to last longer and remain sharper than those of a comfortable win. Alan Boston, with a lifetime of bets under his belt agrees, said, "Bad beats will definitely stay in the brain longer." But why? There is actually a two-part answer.

The first is that bad memories are processed differently by our brains. Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State who co-authored a 2001 paper entitled "Bad is Stronger than Good", explained via email, "We devote more mental processing to bad than good [memories], because we want to figure out how to deal with them, how to prevent them from occurring again."

Tim Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, said a bad beat in particular gets a turbo boost, making it more powerful than other bad memories. The fact that it was so close to a win ratchets up its intensity.

"When you win, biologically, you get a big outpouring of the pleasure chemical dopamine as well as a bunch of other neuro-chemicals. But surprisingly, when you have a near-miss that rush of dopamine is just as strong, and if anything it is actually stronger. Losses that happen because of bad beats, these are actually biologically registered as much more powerful than actual wins."

It goes back to our caveman brains. It is, he says, "Mother Nature's way of saying how to stay resilient, how to survive, how to adapt and, more than likely, how to get back into the game or back into the hunt."

In the case of our collective memory, however, it doesn't seem to matter which side you bet on, one March Madness bad beat still stands out from the others.

The most expensive "meaningless" shot

When it came to creating the intro for Van Pelt's Bad Beats segment, there was only one college basketball choice. An iconic game that, while more than a decade old, is still instantly recognizable to any basketball gambler: the 2004 national semifinal between the Connecticut Huskies (-2) and Duke Blue Devils.

Emeka Okafor stepped to the free throw line on April 3, 2004, one shot away from clinching a national title game appearance for UConn. After the Huskies rallied from a 12-point deficit in the last four minutes, Okafor grabbed a rebound and was fouled with the Huskies holding a 78-75 lead and 3.2 seconds remaining. He missed his first free throw but then calmly swished the second, giving UConn an insurmountable four-point lead. As the Huskies retreated down the court and tried to avoid fouling, Duke's Chris Duhon received the inbounds pass, raced past half court and launched a shot from roughly 15 feet beyond the 3-point line. As the shot banked in and the buzzer sounded, UConn players began jumping and dancing while the clock ran out.

But in Las Vegas, UConn bettors weren't sharing in the Huskies' joy. Duke had closed as a 2-point underdog and Duhon's shot resulted in a 79-78 Blue Devil loss.

At the time, ESPN's Darren Rovell reported that it was estimated Duhon's shot swung at least $30 million in bets. Given that typically a sportsbook's best-case scenario is the underdog covering but not winning outright, it is safe to assume that much of that $30 million went from bettors' pockets to bookmakers' coffers. It is the power of this particular bad beat that many can still remember where they were as it happened.

DeCorte, the SVP SC producer, recalls when the production team was brainstorming the intro for the planned Bad Beats segment, it was another producer that immediately proposed this game, still hurting from his losing UConn bet. DeCorte agreed and recalled he had bet on Duke, while the roommate with whom he watched the game had bet on UConn.

Boston was watching the game at Sam's Town casino in Las Vegas. With a bet on Duke +3 and the Blue Devils comfortably ahead midgame, he left to go home. In the days before smart phones and ubiquitous Internet access, he decided to stop at a bar to catch the final minutes of the game. As he exited the car and walked toward the entrance, "Some kid just came running out of the bar, doing cartwheels and jumping up and down. 'They covered! They covered! They hit it! It counts!'" he remembered. Without knowing it, while in transit his bet had gone from comfortable cover to needing a miracle shot to cash.

Kornegay was in his final months working at The Imperial Palace before moving to the Las Vegas Hilton (now the Westgate). He recalls listening to the game while driving to California for a family vacation. "I knew exactly what it was [the line]. I do remember smiling and just going, 'Oh I know a lot of people got burned with that 3' and I knew it was good for us." As for the impact on the bottom line: "It was a pretty sizable decision. It was comparable to a key NFL Sunday game."

When the ball hit the net, Kornegay recalls the radio announcers mentioned it in passing without any acknowledgement of its significance, one sign of how much things have changed. "If it happened today, I am pretty sure they would reference the line or somehow reference that it affected a lot more people than you think."

Now that it shows up regularly on ESPN and other media outlets, the most expensive, "meaningless" shot in basketball is more than quirky trivia -- it is a founding father of our growing bad beats obsession. Over the next few weeks, a new iconic shot could be made, but this time more than just gamblers will take notice.