Sweet 16 In Las Vegas: The Bellagio, Big Meals And Basketball Bets

I am looking live at Las Vegas -- and blogging it for the second straight year for SBNation.com. This is my 10th annual trip and the folks at SB Nation thought it would be fun to get an inside look at a March Madness Vegas trip through the eyes of your average basketball-betting, poker-playing, great-food-eating Joe. Or, in this case, Brad.

As a refresher, my buddies and I treat Las Vegas like a cruise ship. Everyone does his own thing, sometimes together, sometimes not, during the day, and then we all meet for dinner at one of the finest establishments Vegas has to offer. My thing is playing poker and watching basketball. Someone else's might be shooting off AK-47s and sitting by the pool. Hopefully, not at the same time -- though I think they have places you can do that here.

We flew in on Wednesday night. Three of us that were flying from Washington, D.C., had the same flight last night, which got me wondering throughout the day leading up to the flight: What's the dorkiest thing a group of guys sitting in various parts of a plane can do? Get matching bowling shirts? No, not worth getting the man's equivalent of a bad bridesmaid's dress. Wait until it is quiet and then start some weird chant where one of us yells something from the back of the plane and another responds from the middle and a third from the front? Nah, too high a chance of getting a body cavity search upon landing -- besides, every chat that comes to mind seems to be a random Charlie Sheen quote. "Vatican!" "Assassin!" "Warlocks!" or "Dying's For Amateurs!"

So, if there is any reader out there who has been with others on a plane and done something really stupid that won't get me arrested for future years, let me know. As it turns out, I was seated across the aisle from one of my poker-playing buddies, and we played our usual best 2-out-of-3 for coffee for three hours. The other two hours were spent watching the in-flight movie, "True Grit," a movie where nothing happens, making me think the Coen brothers could put their name on the equivalent of "Snakes on a Plane" and get a nomination.

I thought Vegas would be swamped this year because of a construction convention going on called ConExpo that has about 150,000 people, but the only time I really noticed it was passing by the entrance of Cirque de Soliel. Who knew -- construction folk really like freaky gymnasts. Part of me thought that on our way to check in at the Bellagio, we'd see drunken conventioneers on Caterpillar bulldozers riding down the strip. I still hope to see that, but I'm not holding my breath.

Our timing may be off for good events concurring with our trip. Next week is Michael Jordan's celebrity golf tournament with a much higher celebrity-sighting factor. Maybe I'll be lucky and, NBA games or not, Charles Barkley will come in a week early. Frankly, I've never been very lucky with such sightings. I'm pretty sure my list of random encounters for my entire life goes as follows: Ben Affleck, Rich Kotite, Lawrence Taylor (he didn't card me), Jimmy Johnson (the coach, not the driver) and Riker from Star Trek. A buddy of mine and I are also confident that, a couple of years ago, we sat next to Tim Floyd for an hour at a blackjack table, but the only ways we could think of asking him would probably have ended in a physical altercation.

After checking in, it was straight to the poker room, where after making one of the worst pre-flop plays I've ever made calling an all-in with my jacks when it should have been perfectly obvious that I would be no better than in a race and probably behind, I grinded for about two hours to end up a hundred bucks ahead before the east coast time difference got the better of me and I headed for bed around midnight PDT. Three of us will play in the Venetian noon tournament today, where I placed third last year, so I am hoping for another good start to the trip. Speaking of physical altercations, as much as I love the Venetian poker room, the closest I've been to such an altercation in a good 20 years or so is when I won a big pot from a guy on a bad beat and he sat there drunk for half an hour (not even playing) before finally getting up and coming at me. We're hoping to avoid similar occurrences this year.

The NCAA Tournament Picks

Before poker though, there is going to be some relaxing in the Bellagio Spa, maybe a breakfast buffet, and of course, getting my Sweet 16 bets down. Amazingly, I went 1-9 last year on college basketball bets. If you want to make money on college basketball, just see what I am betting on and go the other way. And, it's not like I am going for big parlays; these are straight-up bets and I just, well, pick the wrong side. Maybe I will break that trend this year.

It was nice to see St. John's be relevant this year since they are the team of my youth and I would have bet on them if they were still in the tournament. But, in all honesty, I picked Gonzaga over them in the first round in every pool. They would have been better off playing someone really good. The Johnnies can beat a Duke. They just can't beat a Fordham.

Today, I love the Butler and BYU money lines, especially Butler at around +180. This means the teams are doomed for sure with my golden touch, but I'm just not impressed by Wisconsin (I lost a bad bet on them nine years ago and I still haven't gotten over it) or Florida -- or Florida State for that matter tomorrow, when I will take VCU. I feel like two of those three games should be a lock to get. Having said that, let me make the argument against those teams that has nothing to do with basketball. Wisconsin, Florida, and Florida State are all huge football schools that know how to shield their athletes. It's nice that their teams made the Sweet 16, but that's not a big deal for a big, public, sports school where the focus is football. These kids will be able to focus all week. The Butler, BYU, and VCU teams, especially VCU. ... I'm not sure how much they have been on campus this week, but those kids will be mobbed every second of every day by their classmates. They will be made to feel like they already won something big, and they have established themselves as the kings of school. There's a lot of danger in that, a lot of loss of hunger and focus. Convinced? I'm still betting on them.

I also like the over in Duke vs. Arizona (145) and Wisconsin vs. Butler (124) and I am staying as far away from any UConn game as possible, including the pick 'em against San Diego State. Last betting note: The Bellagio has a prop bet on first to score 15 points and Arizona is +170. Doesn't that seem off? Yes, Duke is way better, but condensing a game down to the first few minutes seems almost random. A 70 percent return on something not much worse than a coin flip might be too good to pass up.

That's the day in a nutshell. Tonight is steak and I'm already getting hungry. Tomorrow is seafood and then Saturday is our "signature experience" dinner, about which I will write more later. In a personal first, I had to sign a contract for the Saturday dinner. It better be good. Unfortunately, some of the top Vegas restaurants have closed this year. Supposedly, the reason is that people don't want to do a three hour dinner. To me, it's like a show in itself, and I'd rather go for that, feel like a VIP and have ridiculously good food, than see the gymnasts. But what do I know? Also, I can't feel too bad for the restuarants. I think they should have at least tried to lower some prices before boarding up the windows. It's some form of hubris when you essentially say that if people won't pay your outrageous prices, you'll close.

Wish me luck, or say "break a leg," or whatever the Vegas vernacular is. Hmmm, you'd think with all the superstition and lingo in this town, there would be a special way to say "good luck."

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