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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Betting on the Zags isn’t a sure thing, but it’s fun

By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

LAS VEGAS – The Las Vegas Strip is lined with mixed messages.

Inside a food court, signs urging tourists to “drink responsibly” were juxtaposed with young women offering free vodka shots to anyone who walked by.

That was at lunch hour.

One block away, a giant reader board atop one casino warned the public that “Over-betting on sports gambling is a foul on the play.”

Inside, young salesmen were hawking a new phone app that lets people bet remotely on almost anything, including Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 game Thursday night against UCLA.

By late morning on Thursday, thousands of fans were doing just that: Husbands and wives and 20-somethings dissecting the odds and making their wagers.

Most were betting with their hearts, and sometimes that’s enough, as Gonzaga won 79-76.

“Of course I’m betting on Gonzaga,” said one middle-aged man who wouldn’t give his name.

He wasn’t alone.

“We have more tickets written on UCLA than Gonzaga,” said Lamarr Mitchell, Director of Trading at MGM Resorts International. “However, the Gonzaga fans are really backing their team as our handle (money wagered) is heavier on the Zags.”

That could be what drove the betting line this week. UCLA opened as a 2 ½-point favorite, but the line was down to a single point on Thursday.

“The bigger bets also have been on Gonzaga,” Mitchell said.

Betting on the Zags is a forbidden pleasure for most Zag fans. Sports wagering is now legal in Washington state casinos, but not contests involving local teams.

The normalizing of sports betting for Zag fans coincides with a history-making event unfolding Thursday at T-Mobile Arena: This year’s West Regional is the first NCAA Tournament event to be held in Las Vegas.

For years, the NCAA was sending its own mixed message about its relationship with the city and its gambling-driven economy.

That didn’t make much sense, considering Las Vegas is among the most travel-friendly cities in America. And whether the proliferation of sports gambling has had a positive or negative effect on college sports has become a moot point. Zag fans know this already from 14 years of attending the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.

At the same time, the larger basketball world was acclimating just fine through the Pac-12 tournament, the NBA summer league and youth travel tournaments where college coaches evaluate prospects.

“The atmosphere was crazy,” said Gonzaga junior Julian Strawther, who grew up in Las Vegas. “Vegas showed up and showed out. It was one of the biggest and most fun games I’ve ever been a part of.”

“I feel like slowly over the last five years, everything is kind of rolling through town and we’re getting a lot of big events,” Strawther said.

More are on the way: The Frozen Four in 2026 and the NCAA’s crown jewel, the Final Four, in 2028.

“Hosting the NCAA West Regional at T-Mobile Arena further cements Las Vegas as the sports capital of the world and the premier destination for March Madness,” said Dan Quinn, Vice President of Entertainment Operations at MGM.

“The event has been a long time in the making, a result of a lot of hard work by a passionate group of peers,” Quinn said. “We look forward to the arrival of the 2028 Final Four.”

Back at the casinos, more fans were gathering by midafternoon.

“One point, that’s nothing,” one woman said to her husband, referring to the UCLA-Gonzaga spread.

Then they delved into the minutiae of the over/under – the total points scored by both teams. It stood at 145. Too low, the woman said. Her husband shrugged.

They probably didn’t know about Gonzaga’s recent history. Going into Thursday, the Zags had lost nine straight games against the spread.

The best cautionary tale of all came in Gonzaga’s last game. Now the stuff of legend, it happened in the final moments of the Zags’ second-round tournament win over Texas Christian Sunday.

A 4 ½-point favorite, Gonzaga was leading by 6 with less than a second to play. That meant anyone betting on GU would win their bet. But as fans were rising from their seats, TCU’s Damion Baugh heaved up a last-second shot.

Swish. Suddenly, those GU bets were all losers.

“Nobody Told Y’all To Bet,” Baugh tweeted.