LAS VEGAS – It's a short walk from the MGM Grand sports book — where the odds on Saturday favored Oregon by two points over UCLA — to the arena where the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament was contested. Timed just right, a fan could have sneaked away at halftime to place a bet on his favorite school and still made it back before play resumed.
That certainly had to flummox the NCAA, which believes this gambling city is so evil that it refuses to even consider letting it host part of the NCAA tournament. This being Las Vegas, though, the city just moved on to the next best thing, hosting four different conference tournaments in the last two weeks in three different arenas.
All told, 68 teams full of impressionable young men and women came to town seeking glory on the hardwood, including the No. 1 men's team in the nation. Their fans filled arenas, enjoyed the city's nightlife, and, yes, even wagered a few bucks on their favorite teams.
If they took Oregon and gave the points, they managed to fatten their wallets a bit. The Ducks not only beat UCLA but covered the spread, making it a big night for Oregon fans and gamblers alike.
The fact there wasn't a peep about it from the NCAA underscores what many have suspected for a long time now. The agency that's supposed to regulate college athletics barely regulates anything anymore, at least when it comes to basketball and football, the only two sports that generate any serious revenue.
It can't keep student-athletes out of Las Vegas, can't keep conferences from breaking apart in search of more money. Its investigative unit is in a shambles and NCAA President Mark Emmert has so little influence that even his simple plan to pay players a $2,000 annual stipend out of the millions their universities bring in from sports can't get through the organization's byzantine power structure.
And while Emmert has tried to make his name with plans to strengthen academics, the truth is that little has been done to close a huge gap in graduation rates between white and black athletes.
The annual study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida of tournament teams found that, although graduation rates are ticking upward, just two out of every three black basketball athletes graduate from college.
"It is simply not acceptable that in 2013, 40 percent of the men's teams had a GSR (graduation success rate) disparity of greater than 30 percent between white student-athletes and African-American student-athletes, and 53 percent had a GSR disparity of greater than 20 percent," said Richard Lapchick, the primary author of the study.
The days of the NCAA wielding a big stick over college athletics are pretty much over, and for that we should all be grateful. It controls the tournament and little else, and the people who are supposed to make sure schools follow the rules have been exposed as a group of amateurs who might have trained under the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
Without the NCAA tournament, the organization itself might not even exist. It's a cash cow that will bring in $702 million in television rights fees this year alone and the tournament may be the one thing that keeps big schools from bolting from the NCAA umbrella completely. The money — much of which is distributed to member schools — allows it to function as a quasi-legitimate overseer of college sports, though most of the important decisions in basketball and football are made by the big conferences and their broadcast partners.
It's hard to take anything the NCAA does seriously anymore. That's especially true when it comes to enforcement, where in the past few months the agency has botched investigations of both the University of Miami and star UCLA recruit Shabazz Muhammad.
Miami is fighting back, with its president calling the probe "unprofessional and unethical." Strong words, but Miami's reaction to the NCAA probe is yet another sign that even its member schools are fed up with the way the organization operates.
As for Muhammad, he eventually got to play all but three games of what will be an abbreviated college career. What makes his case interesting, though, is that the NCAA spent a year investigating him for taking paid recruiting trips — and he's from Las Vegas.
Indeed, the agency seems to have a strange fascination with this city. Investigators once lived here nearly full time, hoping they might bust UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian for littering or crossing the street against the light. It wasn't until Tarkanian fought back with a lawsuit the NCAA eventually settled by paying him $2.5 million that the organization finally backed off.
Tarkanian sat courtside Saturday to watch the final of the Mountain West Conference tournament. There were 18,500 fans packed into the arena his teams built, and later that night 11,000 more watched UCLA and Oregon at the MGM Grand.
It was March basketball at its best and, if a few people wanted to place wagers on it, well so be it. There will be literally billions of dollars changing hands on the NCAA tournament beginning this week, much of it in office pools that the NCAA in its puritanical beliefs also finds objectionable.
It's almost laughable, but the hypocrites at the NCAA are hosting the biggest betting event ever.
Let's just hope it's the one thing they manage to get right.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg