Let the Dance begin!

Mar 16, 2004 8:24 AM

March madness, mayhem or mania ”” whatever you want to call it, the hyperactive hysteria of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament ”” is just about here. And, for sports book operators, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

"We’ve been in a funk since the Super Bowl, and we’re excited about the upcoming tournament," said the director of a Strip sports book. "There’s plenty of anticipation with the players, who have been counting the days for the bracket pairings."

The brackets were announced Sunday, and already the surge in college hoops betting has begun. Even though the first bracket games won’t be played until Thursday, bettors have already made enough choices to move some of the opening lines.

"We’ve seen a lot of money come in on the underdogs," the sports director said. "Bettors like to bet trends, and that’s always been an opening round trend: bet the dogs.

"The tournament isn’t just people coming in to bet the games," said Chuck Esposito, race and sports director at Caesars Palace. "It’s an event like the Super Bowl, in which people come for the whole package ”” the gaming, room, food, entertainment ”” the whole Las Vegas experience.

"We expect huge crowds and we’ll bring in extra seating," Esposito continued. "This year’s tourney is wide open. Any one of 40-50 teams have a shot to make some noise."

Esposito said his selection to make the Final Four and possibly win it all is Mississippi State, but that Boston College deserved consideration as a "Cinderella" team.

There should be plenty of noise out at the Rampart Casino in Summerlin, and its cousin, the Cannery in North Las Vegas, according to sports director Eric St. Clair.

"This is literally the busiest time of the year for us, with non-stop action that will be sustained over a four-day period during the opening rounds this week," St. Clair said. "We expect hot and heavy action with parlays, parlay cards and overflow crowds for the start of the action."

St. Clair added he favored Stanford to win because of "their intelligent players," but throws in North Carolina State as a longshot that can’t be ignored because of the tough ACC conference it played in.

On the Las Vegas Strip, the Aladdin expects plenty of betting action on what "could be one of the best tournaments in history," according to sports director Brad Bryant.

"The field is filled with parity and it’s wide open," Bryant said. "We expect big crowds and put in extra places to watch the action, such as our Sinbad lounge."

You can also expect standing-room-only at the Palms, which traditionally hosts huge crowds for special sporting events.

"It’s a wide open field," said sports manager Fred Crespi. "But I think Wisconsin has a legitimate chance to make some noise in their bracket."

Note also that the Palms recently expanded its poker room to accommodate many more "live" poker players.

March Madness begins in earnest with the first and second action this weekend, followed by the Regional Rounds (Sweet 16) the following weekend. The NCAA semifinals will be played April 3 in San Antonio and the Âí­finals will be held on April 5.

The tournament is a boon for sports books, which expect to rake in as much money as they do on the Super Bowl, the largest betting event of the year. That figure should top $80 million this year.

"The NCAA basketball tournament is made for gambling," Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, told CNN. "There is a reason virtually every newspaper in America prints the brackets. Part of the excitement of the Cinderella teams making it is that they’re long shots coming in."

Betting on the NCAA tournament has helped drive up its TV ratings. On average, an NCAA tournament game is watched by 6.5 percent of U.S. households, versus 4.9 percent who tune in to watch the NBA playoff games.