Greetings from Salt Lake City where I witnessed Gonzaga and Arizona advance to the Sweet 16 this past Saturday in the NCAA men's Division I basketball tournament.

The 420-mile trek from Las Vegas took fewer than five hours to navigate, thanks to speed limits on Interstate 15 set at a generous 80 miles per hour.

I stopped in Mesquite for a quick look at the sports book offerings at neighboring properties, Virgin River Hotel and Eureka Casino.

Virgin River offers an independent sports book managed by the capable Zach Franzi.

Zach is the son of Jack Franzi, a longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker with ties tracing back to Michael Gaughan at the old Barbary Coast.

Virgin River's sports book deserves high praise.

Reduced juice (-108) was offered on college basketball sides, the race book was alive with activity and a willing staff provided all the answers to the important questions (limits of $5,000 were available for the first week of the NCAA tournament).

Contrast Virgin River to Eureka's William Hill outlet where the ticket writer closed for business before the last games were complete and where the betting kiosk was temporarily experiencing technical difficulties, a constant state of affairs if you're familiar with the William Hill operation in Nevada.

Back on the road to Salt Lake City, I wanted to join my fellow alums of Northwestern University to watch the Wildcats in second-round action of the NCAA tournament.

As widely-documented, NU was making its first NCAA tourney appearance in the 79-year history of the basketball program.

Upon arriving at Vivint Smart Home Arena, formerly named Energy Solutions Arena and before that the Delta Center, I noticed two bronze statues honoring the two greatest players in Utah Jazz hoop history.

It was fitting John Stockton's statue was shown delivering a pass only a few feet from Karl Malone's likeness as he was shown driving toward the basket for a layup.

The names of the statues were perfect as Stockton's sculpture was titled "Threading the Needle" while Malone's figure was named "Special Delivery."

Inside the arena, I saw an aging Mark Eaton wandering the narrow corridors of an arena desperately in need of a facelift.

(To be precise, the arena needed a facelift, not Eaton.)

The old Delta Center was built in 1991 and a long-overdue $125 million renovation project will begin after the Jazz complete the 2016-17 season.

Back to Stockton and Malone, the pair will be honored, along with teammates from the 1996-97 Western Conference championship team, this Wednesday night at halftime of the Knicks-Jazz game scheduled to be televised by ESPN.

Stockton hit a three-pointer to beat the buzzer and the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, sending Utah to its first-ever NBA Finals appearance, where the Jazz eventually fell to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games.

Malone won the league MVP title that season after averaging 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game in leading Utah to a franchise-record 64 wins in the regular season.

I faintly remember a 1997 NBA Finals series price of Pick 'em (-110 either way) despite Chicago's championship pedigree and Utah's inability to win a title.

One last impression of the Stockton and Malone statues presented in front of the arena: Everyone knows about Karl Malone's work in the weight room with his wide shoulders supporting bulging biceps, but the artist of the bronze statue did an excellent job depicting Stockton's strength as well with thighs as big as tree trunks and perfect balance, a secret to excellent play at the point guard position.



TRADING MONEY: I made only one bet on the games I attended.

I took St. Mary's +5.5 (-108) over Arizona.

I was delighted over the first 15 minutes of the game when the Gaels led the struggling Wildcats, 24-14.

And then the real game began.

Arizona asserted its superiority over St. Mary's during the final 25 minutes of the game by outscoring the scrappy but overmatched athletes from Moraga, 55-36.

The Wildcats shot 59% from the field in the second half as head coach Sean Miller demanded Arizona's guards to either drive to the basket or feed the team's low-post players.

St. Mary's and Arizona played in private scrimmages three of the past four seasons so there was plenty of familiarity and mutual respect on both sides.

For the remainder of the week's action, I won a few more games than I lost, but a bigger-than-normal bet on Notre Dame (+3) over West Virginia and an ill-advised money-line bet on a dead NIT team erased any hope of making money.

Notre Dame, like many of its ACC counterparts, disappointed greatly.

The ACC went 7-8 from 15 games (a miserable 2-13 against the spread) with only North Carolina left standing after the first week of tournament action.

The mighty ACC looked good in November and December but lost March badly.

William Hill posted the ACC's number of tourney wins at 11.5 and even a North Carolina championship would not put the proposition OVER the total.

The Pac-12 (8-1), Big 12 (8-3), Big Ten (8-4) and SEC (7-2) took advantage of the ACC's poor play, exceeding expectations and placing three teams apiece in the Round of 16.


DO YOUR JOB:
Here's a quick story from behind the scenes in the race and sports book at Westgate Las Vegas.

Being a ticket clerk at Westgate requires attention to detail, especially when it comes to big-money payouts and transactions.

A female ticket writer was recently relieved of her duties after a shortage of $900 from her money drawer.

The supervisory staff went to the videotape to discover the $900 shortfall occured when the distracted employee paid a customer $450 after her screen clearly stated "Collect $450."

Turns out, the female employee was spotted on videotape texting throughout the day and the distractions not only led to her shortfall but also her dismissal.

Westgate ticket clerks average about $800 every month in tips during football season and about half that number during basketball and baseball seasons.

Starting hourly rates are barely above minimum wage.



THE WISE OWL: Former Stardust oddsmaker Bobby Beghtel likes two games tonight, one in the NIT and the other in the CBI.

He's playing a pair of home favorites in Colorado State (-5.5) over Cal-State Bakersfield and Rice (-4.5) over Utah Valley State.

The Owl's play on Villanova at odds of 14/1 to repeat as NCAA champions went up in smoke when Wisconsin rallied from a 57-50 deficit to pull a mild upset, 65-62.

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes, who scored 19 points in the big win, criticized students of the game like Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin.

"You have all types of ranking systems, statistics. The thing with all those algorithms is they can't calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire. And that's the thing we have," said Hayes.