Two weeks ago I simulated the NCAA Tournament on my Xbox 360 and vowed to bet its first round predictions "like a message from the future." My friends called that the stupidest thing they'd ever heard. They were right.
But I did it anyway, hitting Las Vegas for a bachelor party with a sheaf of papers that spit out off-the-wall calls like Purdue hanging 112 points on Siena and Gonzaga romping by 46. These were the findings of NCAA Basketball 10, a series EA Sports has since discontinued, and one that apparently doesn't rest starters in simulated blowouts. Still, I was going to put my faith in its evaluations, which were based on team data that was at least two weeks old and did not account for major injuries, if it accounted for any at all.
"What do you think?" I asked Pat, one of the more hardened bettors in our group of 13. "Got any advice?"
"Yeah, actually," Pat said, looking over what would become known as The Sim. "If you tip the guy at the betting window he'll give you a couple more drink tickets."
"OK, that's good information," I said.
We began Thursday morning at the Green Valley Ranch sports book out in Henderson, which is in a full-service casino resort that is about half as bonkers as the Strip is on what is easily the biggest betting weekend in Vegas. Anyone who's ever been can testify to this. The Sim turned in a lot of 10-point victories for favorites. Rather than fixate on those, I went looking in the opposite direction - the few tight scores it delivered, indicating an underdog covering the point spread, or mammoth blowouts that suggested I take the favorite no matter what.
Richmond, which pounded some big conference teams in its nonconference schedule, was just a 1.5-point favorite over St. Mary's, with the Sim calling for a 26 point victory. Only the California guys among us liked the Gaels and I smelled a west coast bias. Plus I know a guy who went to St. Mary's and he reminds me of Ross The Intern from The Office. So I took The Sim's advice and put $22 on the Spiders to win $20 back. Vanderbilt was a 3.5-point favorite over Murray State and The Sim had the Commodores triumphing by 11. For some reason I liked that, discounting the fact the Racers had won 31 games. "Twenty-two on 732," I said at the counter.
The sports book had Baylor as an 11.5-point favorite over Sam Houston State, a game The Sim said Baylor would take by 29. Continuing with my trend of betting against fictitious states, I took Baylor. Finally, a lot of people were calling for Northern Iowa to upset UNLV. They were a three-point underdog, which I thought was a little loose for a crapshoot 8-9 game. Plus The Sim had the Panthers actually winning outright. I laid my final $22 bet on them.
"What's that thing say about Georgetown," asked Peter, a really good friend of mine and a graduate of the university.
"Hoyas by 60," I said. "God yes, take that. It's like printing money."
"Alright!" Peter said, laying $44 on Georgetown minus 13.5. Now, Peter would bet on the Hoyas versus the 1965 Boston Celtics playing outside during Hurricane Hugo. But his eyes brightened with The Sim's endorsement, and come on, after the death march Georgetown went through in the Big East, no way it wouldn't kick the ass of some shitty MAC team, right?
"Don't talk to me right now," Peter said, looking like he was going to resume his smoking habit. Georgetown was trailing by nine with five to play, theoretically still winnable, but no way they were going to make up 23 points to beat the spread.
That first day was a disaster. Your average bettor will pick the favorites and root for the underdogs in the tournament, which means when Cinderella dances the house kicks everyone's ass. And that's what happened, too, starting with Murray State's buzzer beater to take down Vanderbilt and my bet there. St. Mary's torched Richmond for 80 and a nine-point victory, costing me another $22. I entertained delusions of gutting out a win with Baylor, leading by eight as Sam Houston started fouling with a minute left. I needed the Bears to win by 12. They ended up winning by nine.
But there was one bright spot - the upset called for by The Sim came through. It said Northern Iowa would win by three and that's exactly what happened. "Hey, Northern Iowa won, sweet!" I said, momentarily forgetting that three other picks had all failed, putting me down $46 for the day. The entire room told me to shut up.
Georgetown finally lost and Peter started scrolling on his Blackberry through a Hoyas message board marinating in bile. I don't think anybody was up that day. Butler and Kentucky paid off for a few guys, and I hated the fact I didn't grab the Bulldogs, giving just 2.5 points in a game The Sim said they'd win by 38. It also accurately predicted Old Dominion's upset of Notre Dame, although by a wider margin than the 1-point victory. But overall, it was 7-9 against the spread on Thursday, which anyone could have done.
"Let's go out and get blasted," someone said. We got cleaned up and set out to do that.
Friday morning we were too hung over to make it to Green Valley Ranch to bet the early games. The night before I'd shot tequila, which I hate and I've sworn never to do unless someone else pays for it and it's handed to me by a woman with fake boobs. In this case both conditions were met. I then rode a mechanical bull. So I did not make my morning five-mile jog. (In fact, I haven't since 2004.) We were partway through West Virginia and Morgan State before the group assembled the wherewithal to get back to the sports book.
It was probably a good thing that I was too late to get in on the likes of Minnesota-Xavier, Clemson-Missouri and Wisconsin-Wofford. The sim had Minnesota, Clemson and Wisconsin against the spread and none of them hit, the first two losing outright. We rolled up at the ranch around noon in our rented Kia minivan, christened "Amistad" for the inhumane conditions in which it transported the 13 of us that weekend. Things were so bad that Bob, probably 10 years older than the oldest of us, barfed out the window at freeway speed, and he hadn't had anything to drink the night before. When I picked up my sheet NCAA Basketball 10 was 9-10 for the first round and its next call was Purdue by 38 over Siena, completely unreasonable confidence in a team absent its top scorer, an injury unaccounted for in NCAA 10's Dynamic Update.
"So, Donkey Kong, what does your video game say about Purdue?" Jake, the best man, asked.
"It says don't touch it," I said, without looking up.
We weren't going to be hanging around all day so I wanted to get one of the next games at least. At 1:55 p.m. Texas A&M was a 2.5-point favorite over Utah State and the sim had the Aggies - well, the Texas Aggies - winning by 19. So I took them. Next, at 4 p.m., NCAA 10 said Gonzaga was going to annihilate Florida State by 46 and even though I found that implausible, I remembered yesterday's lesson about not picking heavy favorites nicknamed the Bulldogs. Plus the Seminoles were a favorite and, worse, lost to N.C. State twice this year, which in my mind set off a blaring awoogah fraud alarm. "Twenty-two on 826," I said at the betting counter, for Gonzaga.
The game also said Maryland, nine-point favorites in real life, would cruise to a 21-point win against Houston. I bet Maryland, half out of irony, since Crecente went there and last year's intern, Andrew Freedman, is currently enrolled. But to be perfectly honest I despise the Terrapins third most on my ACC hate ladder, and I figured this game would either pay me money or give me license to hate them even more.
Finally I logged my saving throw for the weekend. The five-way wonder-twin-powers-activate parlay. This would be a $5 bet to get $95 back and put me up for good. I went back to the two games I'd bet straight up, A&M and Gonzaga, still liking those lines. Then I went with two dogs, Georgia Tech as a virtual pick-em (one point dog) against Oklahoma State, and New Mexico State versus Michigan State. NCAA 10 predicted Tech as a straight-up winner by five, which I could see if it pounded it inside and managed to inbounds the goddamn ball correctly, something Tech failed to do with any consistency in the ACC Tournament. New Mexico State was getting a whopping 13 points against the Spartans. The sim had Michigan State winning by just three, so I figured NCAA Basketball 10 would prove itself here or not at all.
That left one last call. Syracuse was giving 17 points to Vermont. On the other side, Cal and Louisville were a complete tossup. NCAA 10 said Syracuse would triumph by 29. So I decided to go large with the Orange. Plus, I'm a sucker for big favorites. But I forgot that the game did not account for the absence of forward Arinze Onuaku, who accounted for about 10 points per game. Whoops.
After submitting my parlay card, hitting the lunch buffet, and an afternoon of softball and some bachelor party shenanigans, we went back to our rented house. A&M had smashed Utah State by 13 to get NCAA 10 back even at 12-12 for the tournament and shortly thereafter, Gonzaga whipped Florida State by seven in a game not even that close. I was up $40 and two-to-the-good on the parlay.
We got home in time to pick up Michigan State, which led 13 at the half over New Mexico State. Basically a push at that point and not looking good for me. But the Aggies held MSU to three field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half, then took a lead and had the game tied as late as 3:17, at which point I felt confident I'd cover. Then Georgia Tech came home a five-point winner - again, exactly what NCAA Basketball 10 predicted.
Suddenly I was one win away from hitting the five-way to Friday. No one talked about it, like it was a no-hitter in the sixth inning. And it was past 6 p.m. and the group was getting ready for dinner. "What's everybody feel like tonight?" Jake asked.
"Syracuse and Champagne," I said. We opted for barbecue.
The barbecue joint out by Green Valley Ranch had about a 45-minute wait for tables enough to seat us, so we all grabbed drinks and crowded the bar TV. Syracuse-Vermont wasn't playing live anywhere west of Lake Ontario, so I had to settle for watching that score line updating above the Cal-Louisville game. When we arrived Syracuse was leading by 17, the exact spread. A push would lose me the whole bet. Why the hell didn't I just bet Cal, currently romping by 10 as a one-point dog?
Then the Syracuse score lurched from 61-44 to 64-44. "Twenty!" I shouted, wondering what the hell was taking place on the back end. (It was Kris Joseph stealing the ball and Wes Johnson bottoming out a three-pointer.) Vermont drew back to 19 with about five minutes to go, but that was it. I found myself standing there calling out the margin to the entire bar and no one in particular at the same time. Twenty-one! Twenty-three! Twenty-six with two minutes to go! I flashed back to my six-year-old birthday, when Dad took me to Kenan Stadium to see North Carolina play football and all I did was stare at the clock and wonder why the hell it wasn't counting down.
"Holy Christ I do believe they are gonna win this bitch," I said stupidly. Of course Syracuse was going to win, they were killing Vermont by two dozen with two minutes to play. I meant win it for me, beat the spread - which by the way I've never understood what was the correct usage of that term, does a favorite beat while an underdog covers, or vice-versa? Hell, never mind how you say it, write it, spell it out in the Greek alphabet or a goddamn rebus for all I care, I was going to hit a five-way parlay. That pays 20-to-1, and any jorts-wearing hard-on tourist who's ever choked on a weekday afternoon's worth of secondhand smoke and shitty well drinks knows it is a far, far longer shot than that.
But ultimately, I wasn't rooting for my wallet as much as I was for NCAA Basketball 10 and the people who made it, even as pointless as that kind of vicariousness sounds. I don't know any of them, personally. But it's a shame to me that college basketball won't have a video game at all after this year, and I wanted to see some measure of vindication for the idea. I wanted to see NCAA Basketball 10 go out guns blazing and by God did it ever, its picks going 13-3 against the spread on that final day. This video game and those who made it finished like Secretariat at the Belmont, hitting the last 11 games in a row. And when that magic "FINAL" appeared beside a 23-point Syracuse victory it was like Luther Fucking Vandross himself popped out of my wallet to sing me "One Shining Moment." I bellied up to the bar and ordered a double Jack Daniel's on the rocks, the first of several purchases backed by the full faith and credit of this golden grenade fallen from a dead man's hand.
There was still a cherry on top of my money sundae. Yes, Maryland. There they were, the little brother of the ACC, kicking Houston's ass to the tune of a 12-point victory and another $20 for me. "Phi Slamma Jamma ain't worth a damma!" I roared. Houston losing in the NCAA Tournament will always delight a man from N.C. State. We could do no wrong that last night. Peter cashed in on Cornell. Jake took Purdue anyway and it paid off. Everyone bet Gonzaga and collected. Dinner was basically free that night. Dan, the bachelor, hit with Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech and then, in an all-time awesome non sequitur, got his picture taken with Neil Schon, the guitarist for Journey. "This is the happiest I've seen you in forever," Chris said to me, and he was right. But it wasn't the money. It was the winning.
In the end, this is what March Madness is all about, and in my memory NCAA Basketball will always be a part of it. I'll honestly remember this video game and this real-world performance alongside all the great tournament upsets. All the great runs and comebacks. Right there with all the Friday night one-hit wonders like Petey Sessoms and Darvin Ham and Harold "The Show" Arcenaux, going unconscious for one last redemptive effort as time runs out on a season. On a career.
On a game.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.