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Mad about … Drew?!

Observations from the NCAA tourney’s first weekend

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The sports book at Jerry’s Nugget: The madness practically jumps off the page, doesn’t it?
Photo: Jacob Kepler
Patrick Donnelly

Thursday, 1:50 p.m.

He might be one of America’s most beloved comedians and game-show hosts, but at the M Resort race and sports book, Drew Carey is a major buzzkill.

The room is filled for the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and the action-packed five-hour opening session has the crowd on the verge of … well … madness. We’ve just watched as mighty Memphis barely held off Cal State Northridge, Texas A&M embarrassed (mostly) hated BYU, and North Carolina thrashed Radford by 43, temporarily justifying the lofty status the Tar Heels held in many of our brackets.

With just one game remaining before the evening session, we’re looking forward to giving our eyeballs a rest; instead of flitting from one screen to the next to track four games at once, we can focus on Washington-Mississippi State—a rare instance of sensory underload amid the March mayhem.

But instead of Huskies vs. Bulldogs, we’re looking at Carey’s pasty, horn-rimmed face stretched across a massive wide-screen. CBS’ feed has momentarily switched to local programming, so quite against our will we’ve joined The Price Is Right, already in progress. And like the show’s trademark mountain climber careening over a cliff, the good vibes in the book have taken a brutal nosedive.

“Get the game on! Switch the feed! DO SOMETHING, DAMMIT!!!” So goes the chorus as the jovial Carey backslaps a housewife and fidgets through another game of Plinko. Eventually, the correct button is pushed, the satellites coordinated, and basketball returns to the screen, much to the relief of a crowd not quite ready for a break in the roundball feast.

Sunday afternoon

The day starts at the Wildfire, an off-off-off-Strip property that boasts a bowling alley, a Denny’s, a handful of slot machines and a surprisingly comfortable sports book. This is not the hangout of choice for those who want to see or be seen by the beautiful people. Thus, it’s exactly what I’m looking for after three straight days of resort crowds.

A handful of grizzled, gimlet-eyed handicappers are sprinkled throughout the book, nursing macrobrewed domestic beer and quietly monitoring the action, much the way a stockbroker tracks his investments. A Wizard of Oz-themed slot machine plays “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” just outside the book as Kansas knocks off Dayton to earn a trip to the Sweet 16.

And the conversation in the room actually centers on basketball—keen observations on Louisville’s transition game, comparisons between the man-sized abilities and girth of Pitt’s DeJuan Blair and Dexter Pittman of Texas, a pertinent discussion of Siena and Cleveland State—all offered up with sober insight and awareness.

Contrast that to the scene at Green Valley Ranch, where a clump of Kansas frat boys dominate the back row of the book and take boorishness to a new level. Their slurring audacity stands out in a room filled with subdued Sunday-afternoon hangover victims, and it’s clear from their conversations that the party is far from over. Even with three relatively taut thrillers playing out on the wall of screens, their attention is focused on who sang karaoke last night, where they left the beer bong and how long one of their crew will last before he passes out. The over-under is set at 9 p.m., and the early money rolls in on the under.

But when they notice the Missouri sweatshirt worn by a member of my party, you can hear the tumblers clicking in their foggy heads … Missouri … Big 12 … Kansas … Big 12 … must talk trash! Third-seeded Mizzou has its hands full with a pesky Marquette squad, and every time a Tiger misses a shot or fumbles a pass, they start in. “That’s the Missouri basketball we all know and love! Typical Tigers—hard to play basketball with two hands around your neck!”

Mizzou pulls out a late win (and an improbable cover), leaving the frat boys with little ammo beyond their “defending national champion” barbs. But in the end, both sides exchange fist bumps and reluctantly wish each other well as we head into the evening, four sweet days from doing it all over again.

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