Let’s dance!

Mar 15, 2005 4:01 AM

No matter what you call it — madness, mania, mayhem or the Big Dance — the college basketball tournament takes center stage for the next three weeks, much to the delight of bettors and sports book operators in Las Vegas and beyond.

"We’re ready for a great tournament, and we expect to have a tremendous turn-out," said a sports supervisor at Palace Station. "Sports, in general, is ready for the pristine excitement that March Madness is capable of generating."

Indeed, sports fans have been champing at the bit, what with the cancellation of the hockey season and the turmoil in baseball over steroids dominating the headlines.

"Competition is what sports is all about, and everyone believes this tournament should be one of the most exciting in recent years," the supervisor said.

Indeed, many experts believe the 65-team tournament is wide open. After Tuesday’s write-in game, 64 teams will square off in sudden-death competition beginning on Thursday.

Heading into the tourney, Illinois and North Carolina are co-favorites at 2-1 to win it all. But there will be plenty of support for teams such as Duke (5-1), Wake Forest (6-1), Louisville (8-1), Kentucky (10-1) and Connecticut (10-1).

According to some handicappers, some of the sleeper teams offer tremendous bargains, including Oklahoma State (15-1), Syracuse (25-1), Georgia Tech (30-1), Gonzaga (30-1) and Michigan State (35-1).

"With so much parity, it’s hard to automatically toss anyone out of the Final Four bracket," said Jimmy Valle, a regular player at the Stardust. "It wouldn’t be out of the question to see some five and six seeds make it all the way to St. Louis (site of the Final Four championship)."

The brackets were announced Sunday afternoon, but already the surge in betting has begun.

"We’ve seen a lot of money come in on the underdogs," said a shift supervisor at the Gold Coast sports book. "Bettors like to bet trends, and that’s been an opening round trend in recent years — bet the dogs."

No matter whom the bettors back, the tournament is a boon for sports books, which expect to rake in as much money as they do on the Super Bowl. That figure reached $90 million this year.

"This is literally the busiest time of the year for us," said Eric St. Clair, sports book manager at the Rampart. "We expect hot and heavy action with parlays, parlay cards and overflow crowds from the start of the tournament."