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Vegas Trends: Old Dominion leads the way for popular underdogs

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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As fans flock to eight cities around America this weekend for live NCAA tournament action, thousands more, both with and without rooting interests, are heading to Las Vegas for another kind of action.

Outside of Super Bowl weekend, the sports books don't look forward to many things more than the first few days of the NCAA tournament.

The food and beer is cheap, and money flies at the betting windows.

The books' total take won't be totaled up until later, but despite the nation's current economic state, business appears to be looking good.

"It seems to be a little bit more than over the last few years," said Jay Kornegay, who is the director of the Super Book at the Las Vegas Hilton. "That's because of the format change. You've got the First Four games, and it seems like it's getting bigger and bigger every year. The coverage, the hype, the social media blitz — people are all over this thing."

While the massive betting public won't start making most of its plays until Wednesday night, the professionals and the sharps have already set some of the early trends.

They like the underdogs.

"One would be Old Dominion," Kornegay said. "Princeton, Bucknell, a little bit on Gonzaga, Northern Colorado, Long Island. Cincinnati is one they've bet a little bit."

The Monarchs created quite a buzz with bettors down the stretch run, going 9-1-1 against the spread in their last 11 games. They're one of the nation's hottest teams after finishing 27-6 and winning the CAA tournament title, but also cashed several tickets a year ago with a first-round upset of No. 6-seed Notre Dame. {YSP:MORE}

The line on ODU was bet up quickly after numbers were released on Sunday night, and it remains a pretty steady 2-point favorite around town for its Thursday afternoon meeting with defending national runner-up Butler.

Among the other popular plays mentioned by Kornegay ...

• Princeton is getting anywhere from 13 to 13.5 points against Kentucky.

• Bucknell is down to just a 10-point dog against UConn. The Bison, as several remember, pulled off a much steeper first-round upsets of No. 3 Kansas in 2004, and with its depth and balance could hang with a UConn team coming off of a five-games-in-five-days run in the Big East tournament.

• Surging Gonzaga is receiving only a point across from St. John's.

• Northern Colorado is bouncing back and forth between receiving 15 and 15.5 points against sudden powerhouse San Diego State, who comes in having never won a tournament game (0-6) in program history, yet now finds itself as a monster favorite.

• Long Island is a strong 17.5 underdog against North Carolina.

• Cincinnati is a pick 'em as a No. 6-seed. The Bearcats take on Missouri and were one of the field's more over-seeded teams in the eyes of many.

It's tough to tell how courageous the public will be when thinking about taking 13, 14 or 15 seeds to cover this weekend, especially when they won't be getting as many points as they're accustomed to.

Kornegay mentioned a few years back when the likes of Kansas or North Carolina would be 28- or 30-point favorites against overwhelmed 16 seeds. The biggest favorites on the board right now are Duke and Kansas, which will face Hampton and Boston University, respectively, to start. They're both around 22.5-point chalks.

"The numbers are certainly shorter [than in previous years], and there are two reasons for that," Kornegay explained. "The gap between the elite teams in the country and the smaller schools in Division I has clearly been reduced.

"The other reason would be that the betting crowds are more educated than ever before. They don't hesitate to bet some of these underdogs like before. It seems like every year we would need Duke or Kansas to not cover. They'd always bet the favorites. It's changed. This has changed ever since the Internet has been around and it changes more and more every year as our betting crowd just seems to be a little bit more educated and savvy on their plays. That's because of the information."

Kornegay also said that the betting public is more familiar than usual with the likes of Old Dominion or Bucknell entering the tournament, thanks to expanded television coverage and the ability to watch games online.

There is one department, though, where the books will be pulling against the traditional powers such as Kansas, and that's to protect themselves against futures bets, either to win the national title or just to advance to the Final Four.

"They love St. John's, they love UConn, they're still in love with Kansas, and Notre Dame is a new love — it's puppy love," Kornegay said.

The odds on Kansas to win the Southwest Region are not in favor of the bettors, as they're 4:5, but the Jayhawks are 3:1 favorites along with Ohio State to win it all.

The value on Notre Dame to win it all is strong, as you can currently find the Irish around town at 15:1 to win in Houston, but also a juicy 5:1 to claim the Southwest.

Kornegay said that, among the bets already put in on teams to win their regions, the two teams who are No. 6 seeds or higher drawing the most action are St. John's and Belmont. The Johnnies are 15:1 to win the shaky Southeast, while high-scoring Belmont is a trendy gamble at 60:1.

Many have been on Belmont's bandwagon for much of the season, and if the high-scoring, 3-point-happy Bruins can push the pace successfully with No. 4 Wisconsin on Thursday, they are not just primed for an upset, but potentially a long run in a somewhat weak Southeast region.

"We all know about Belmont if you follow college basketball," Kornegay said. "They're a prime example of a team that an Internet or media blitz can really promote. I think they're a pretty decent team, but man, they've really hyped this team up."

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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