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LAS VEGAS: Mad About March

The annual “March Madness” NCAA basketball tourney sets the stage for an epic annual guys’ getaway in Las Vegas.

Aria Hotel in Las Vegas

My wolf pack has never seen a night in Las Vegas devolve to the depths depicted in the first Hangover movie. No arrests, no stolen tigers or missing babies. We certainly didn’t invent the Guys’ Weekend in Las Vegas, but our posse has put together a pretty impressive streak. When we convene there on March 14, 2012, it will be our 20th consecutive March Madness get-together.

Collectively, our hair is leaner and lighter; our waistlines no longer hide the after-effects of an all-you-can-eat buffet. But over two decades, we’ve seen, heard, eaten, imbibed and survived most of what Vegas had to offer.

That which hasn’t killed us has lent us valuable, if hazy, insight. Know this: The bouncer is always right. Cab drivers will kick you out if they grow tired of your inebriated sass. And, nine times out of 10, the dolled up blonde in a red bustier who smiles at you in the bar is…working.

You can pick any time of the year for a guys’ getaway. Rates are cheaper midweek and in the summer, but March Madness, i.e., the opening round of the NCAA basketball tournament, is when we converge. Over the course of five days, 50 action-packed college hoops games will be televised. Every sports bar and sports book in Vegas becomes jammed with guys – yes, it’s a 99.5 percent dude convention – hanging on every basket.

The joy of the being immersed in the center of a gambling galaxy is this: When there is a betting line in place, practically all the games matter up until the last second. Maybe you put $20 on North Carolina to beat Morgan State by 30 points. Invariably, the Tar Heels will be up by 29 with five seconds left and have a shooter on the foul line. It’s been obvious since halftime that Carolina was going to win. But that’s not why everybody in the MGM Grand sports book is still screaming for the foul shot to be made or missed. If you put your money on Morgan State and they only lose by 29, you win.

A Guy’s Weekend in Vegas is exciting for a lot of reasons. Invariably, an over-stimulated percentage of your contingent will stay up way too late the first night and drink too much. So a little planning is called for in securing accommodations.

For years, my young March Madness team refused to stay anywhere but The Stardust. They lovingly called the wretched old hotel “The Stardirt,” and slept four to a room. Patronage had to be discontinued when it was demolished in 2007.

The Mandalay Bay was a decent step up for our group (2007-10). During our Mandalay Bay years, if I couldn’t get Steve, Woody, Gerry or Ralphie on their cell phones, it was a good bet I’d find them at the resort’s eyecandy lounge, downing Heinekens and smoking Don Tomas cigars.

Last year, accommodations for the March pilgrimage took a huge leap up when I scored a sky suite in Aria, a 4,000-room megaresort inside the relatively new CityCenter complex.

In Aria’s high-tech rooms you can make everything happen at the push of a touchscreen button: turn on the game, lower the blinds, turn up the lights…even warm up the toilet seat.

Poker has become a hobby of mine, and Aria’s 24-table poker room offers nonstop Texas Hold-Em action. Luckily for a March Mad Man like me, the poker room is adjacent to Skybox, a restaurant for sports junkies that crams in 40 TVs.

The CityCenter megalopolis is also home to the Todd English P.U.B. This cozy pub/eatery (free peanuts, great seafood) has become a must-see on my list. There are ample numbers of TVs for hoops viewing, as well as beer pong tables in the back.

Todd English has 30 beers on tap, and offers a unique game called Seven Seconds. Pick a pint of nearly any beer. Wait for the bartender to signal you to start. She’ll flip over the hourglass timer on the bar. If you down the pint before all the sand slips through, your drink is free.

When I first discovered the Seven Seconds game years ago, the limit was four. Now, it’s two. Fair warning: If you don’t down the pint in seven seconds, you pay for it. Tip: Brews that aren’t high in carbonation drain quicker.

Cheers.

Dipsy-doo-dunkaroo! Was it 20 NCAA tournaments ago that a half dozen wide-eyed college kids first hit The Strip together? We’ve seen Vegas expand and explode. We have won bets with long shots, and seen sure things wilt in a game’s final seconds.

Unlike the early days, now we are a far-flung group. But once a year in Las Vegas – amid its international array of faux facades, climate-controlled casinos and “What Happens Here…” philosophy – we step back in time, and re-oil the rusty hinges on very real friendships.

It’s just that these days, even in a time machine, the hangovers seem to last twice as long.

Ron Donoho is a veteran travel writer, and currently the editor-in-chief of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.

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