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Vegas oddsmakers do their tournament homework

LAS VEGAS -- After spending the entire Selection Sunday afternoon and early evening inside the offices of the largest oddsmaking operation in the world, I'd like to offer a few valuable NCAA Tournament tips:

Tip No. 1: If you think you really know college hoops, you don't. It's nothing personal, but you're clueless. You're what the very nice oddsmakers at Las Vegas Sports Consultants call, "squares." You fill out your office pool brackets or make a legal or illegal bet without any substantial information. You'll take the Dookies because you're a former Cameron Crazy, or you just have "a feeling," or you saw them crush so-and-so on the plasma a couple of weeks ago. And you almost always pick the favorites. That's what squares do.


Tip No. 2: The five men at LVSC who "make the numbers on the sides" -- oddsmaker-speak for setting the point spreads on each of the opening-round games -- are staggeringly smart, know how you're going to bet before you do, and allow for your prejudices. Challenging their numbers is like telling Warren Buffett he doesn't know how to pick a stock.

Tip No. 3: Whatever you do, don't take Texas Tech to win it all. But more on why the LVSC oddsmakers think the selection committee suffered a monumental brain cramp by including the Red Raiders in the field of 65 later in the column.

I'm not saying the fellas at LVSC are perfect, because they aren't. None of them saw George Mason making a Final Four run a year ago. Then again, GMU coach Jim Larranaga didn't see the Patriots making a Final Four run. But about 80 percent of the sports books in this town use LVSC's numbers as the starting point for their own betting boards. And in most cases, the numbers don't move much.

After I left the LVSC offices Sunday evening, I drove over to the Mirage sports book and compared the numbers. Of the 32 LVSC opening lines (the opening-round game to determine who plays Kansas, plus the other 31 opening-round games), Mirage sports book director Robert Walker adjusted only six spreads by 1½ points or more. He kept 12 the same and tweaked six others by a half point.

Walker has been doing business with LVSC for a long time, so he trusts the numbers. And after watching the five wise men -- chief operating officer Ken White, odds director Tony Sinisi, and oddsmakers John "The Coach" Harper, Dan O'Brien and Mike Seba -- break down the NCAA Tournament teams and games, I can understand why.

The LVSC digs look a little like the set of "The Office," but more depressing and with more television monitors. Just outside the windows is Sunset Road, and just across Sunset, no more than than the length of two basketball courts, is Runway 25L of McCarran International Airport. And beyond that is the skyline of the Vegas Strip. So all you hear are planes landing or taking off -- that is, if the steady drone of the office's air conditioning unit isn't drowning out the jet engine noise.

White, 43, took over the company in 2003. His old man, who wrote painstakingly researched football betting guides before it was fashionable, moved the family to Vegas in 1968. Peter White didn't have anything against making a smart bet, which is why he used to have Ken look up the wind speed and direction at Wrigley Field if he was making a wager on the over-under at a Chicago Cubs game that day. Ken was 12, by the way.

When he was 22, Ken played right field for the Salt Lake City Trappers, an independent minor league team partly owned by Bill Murray. Murray would occasionally coach first base. Or he'd take the 18-hour bus trip with the team from Salt Lake to Billings, Mont.

"How about that?" White said. "Hanging out with Bill Murray for the summer."

One night after a game, Murray started pounding down beer with several players, including White. White started doing his Carl Spackler imitation ("Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion …") for Murray. All trip long, the players had asked Murray to do the Spackler voice, but he wouldn't. … until that night. And then … "It's in the hole!"

White spent another year in the San Francisco Giants' minor league organization before calling it quits and returning to work in the Vegas sports books. Twenty years later, he has his own shop.

Remember what I said about your being a square? Here's why: White has been charting games for about 250 Division I men's teams, as well as 50 Division I women's teams, since last fall. He spends at least an hour, usually more, analyzing each team and keeps his hand-written notes and updates in a black, three-ring binder. And from those detailed observations and statistics, he determines a power rating for each team.

"I'm a power rating nut," he said.

He opens the binder to Duke's evaluation page. Duke, which has struggled at times in the difficult ACC, gets a 157 power rating. ACC champion North Carolina, by comparison, is at 163 (anything 160 or above is great).
That means if Duke and Carolina met in the first round (which they obviously won't), White would make Carolina a 6-point favorite.

White doesn't watch a lot of games on TV. He watches the stats. "The stats don't lie," he said.

He rates every coach and the team's style of offensive and defensive play, every starter, and the top four players on every team. He analyzes each box score. He devises computer programs that help determine the actual strength of a team relative to an opponent from an entirely different conference. And last year he did all of this while bed-ridden with pneumonia. Did you do that?

White starts with the coach. In Duke's case, White gives Mike Krzyzewski an A-plus. "Some guys don't like him," White said, "but I think he's the best."

The players are judged by size, experience, scoring over a three-year span, 2-point shooting, 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting, offensive and defensive rebounding, quickness, assists, steals, blocks and class standing. Josh McRoberts is Duke's highest-rated player at 36½. But all of Duke's players earn extra points for having Krzyzewski as their coach. Krzyzewski, said White, is worth an extra 3½ total points to Duke's power rating.

The level of detail in White's team ratings is scary impressive. He charts the actual fan base of each team and how well those fans travel during the tournament. Kentucky's fans, for example, get boffo marks, and not just because Ashley Judd wears tight T-shirts. White noted that about 10,000 Wildcats fans traveled to the recent SEC tournament.

For a lesser-known school such as Winthrop, White attaches a small state map of South Carolina on the sheet. It gives him an idea how close the school is to other major opponents in the state. In some cases, he keeps maps to determine a program's proximity to an NCAA Tournament site.

A full two hours before the selection committee releases the tournament bracket, White makes the following predictions:

The committee is getting better with its at-large selections, but they'll still screw something up. He's convinced they'll make a mistake by taking Texas Tech. … He thinks the top four teams are Florida (165½ power rating), North Carolina (163), Kansas (160½) and Ohio State (158), the next best four are Georgetown (158½), Pittsburgh (160), Texas A&M and UCLA, and the next best three are Memphis (155½), Texas and Wisconsin (sorry, White turned the pages too fast for me to get all the power ratings). … Air Force is not going to get in. … He needs to up his power ratings of Florida and Ohio State.

With less than 40 minutes until the brackets are made public, you can cut the tension here with a licorice stick. I was expecting the biting of nails and cigarettes smoked to the filter. Instead, Harper, Seba, Sinisi, O'Brien and White casually jot down stats or notes from their computer screens or shuffle through their stacks of team evaluation sheets. Each oddsmaker has his own system of making the numbers.

"You got to remember," Coach said, "we do this every day. It's pretty dull."

There are 11 television monitors at the front of the room. Nine are tuned to CBS or ESPN, one is tuned to the LVSC's own network, and the other is tuned to a documentary on Jesse Owens. As CBS's Greg Gumbel announces the brackets, the oddsmakers offer running commentary.

"Oh, they got ripped," said Coach when UNLV was given a low-ish No. 7 seed. … "Butler will be the first 5-seed to go down," said White when the matchup with No. 12 Old Dominion was announced. … "That's a win for Niagara," said White when Niagara was scheduled to play Florida A&M in the play-in game. … "I'm shocked they got in," when Texas Tech is named a No. 10 seed. … "[Boston College] and Texas Tech -- both of those teams are so weak," said Coach of the first-round matchup. … "Syracuse, they should have been in," said Coach when the committee ignored the Orange.

The oddsmakers don't have much time to analyze the first-round games and make the numbers. White gives them 45 minutes. In a perfect world, said Sinisi, they'd like to crunch the figures for the rest of the night and release the numbers first thing in the morning. But the sports books want the sides as soon as possible. And White also wants to release the numbers before the offshore gambling sites release theirs.

White returns to his office and starts checking his power rating notes and tapping some new numbers onto a pair of computer screens. He thinks Butler is overrated and Davidson, which plays Maryland, is underrated. He worries about Notre Dame's lack of experience in the tournament. He looks for teams, such as Oregon and Georgetown, that can impose their tempo on an opponent. He thinks Duke is better than people realize. He likes UCLA's chances of winning the whole thing -- if the Bruins can squeeze by Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. As a tiebreaker, he looks for teams with experience and strong defenses. He lists which teams have to travel west to east (harder on the body).

When White is done making his numbers, he returns to the main room and the debate begins. First, each oddsmaker announces his number for each game and lists his reasons for doing so. Sinisi, as the odds director and the person with the final say (unless White is adamant about a specific game), records each number. Then he writes in the final number on the pairings sheet.

The oddsmakers rarely agree on the exact number. But with the exception of seven games (Gonzaga-Indiana, Old Dominon-Butler, Georgia Tech-UNLV, Villanova-Kentucky, Creighton-Nevada, Winthrop-Notre Dame and Arkansas-USC), they all agree on the favorites.

There is no yelling or name-calling, but the oddsmakers have opinions. Seba can't believe the committee rewarded Virginia with a No. 4 seed. "A joke," he said.

Sinisi looks at UCLA's bracket and becomes a supporter. "I think UCLA … they're animals." He also thinks Memphis is good enough to reach the Final Four, or be eliminated in the second round.

O'Brien figures us "Joe Squares" will bet Duke against Virginia Commonwealth.

Coach mentions that Florida just won the SEC championship in the same building that will be used for the Final Four. He also thinks the Tennessee-Long Beach State game will be a monster scoring game.

And everybody in the room thinks Texas Tech lucked out by getting a tournament invite.

One by one, Sinisi hands in the sheets, which are entered in the company's computer system and released to the sports books. He struggled with the No. 9 Michigan State-No. 8 Marquette matchup, but ultimately made the lower-seeded Spartans a 2-point favorite. "[MSU coach Tom] Izzo gets the respect," he said.

And the matchup between No. 6 Louisville and No. 11 Stanford was a toughie because of Stanford's size, style of play and quality of conference. But in the end, Sinisi settled on a 7½-point number (White had it 10½) partly because Louisville will play the game in nearby Lexington, Ky.

White has a radio show to do at nearby Red Rock (along with LVSC project manager Brian Blessing), but not before he and the other oddsmakers set the totals (the total number of points scored in each game). Later, as I'm driving to the Mirage, I hear White break down the brackets. He just can't let go of the UNLV seeding and the Texas Tech at-large bid.

Meanwhile, I've got a bracket to fill out -- for recreational purposes, of course. All I know for sure is that I'm taking BC over Bob Knight. The other games? Still no clue.

Once a square, always a square.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.