March Madness Maniac Elaine Wynn Offers Some NCAA Bracket Advice

Written By Steve Friess on March 14, 2023 - Last Updated on March 23, 2023
March Madness bracket advice from Elaine Wynn

The billionaire Elaine Wynn is many things. Co-creator of three of the most revolutionary casino-resorts in American history, the Mirage, Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas. Education activist. Patron of the arts and sciences. Style icon. Grandma. Divorcee. Globe trotter.

But for our purposes today, the 80-year-old is another crazed basketball fan looking ahead with some relish to a few weeks of March Madness. And since this week we’re all grabbing and gleaning our NCAA bracket advice from anywhere we can get it, she’s eager to offer up her observations of 2023.

Read more from the State of Play column:

Elaine Wynn NCAA basketball March Madness Duke fan crowd

Wynn’s long history in the basketball world

OK, Wynn isn’t just a fan. She has long sat on the board of governors of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. For decades, she’s sat courtside to cheer on her close friends, now-retired Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his wife Mickie Marsh, whenever the Blue Devils made it to Sweet Sixteen and beyond. “I’ve been to all their victories,” she tells me. “I used to sit with Mickie. Then she started having her grandchildren sit next to her and I sat behind her. I was the coach’s wife whisperer.”

Wynn made fast friends with Coach K after Duke bounced the No. 1-ranked UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the 1991 semi-finals to end her hometown team’s bid for a repeat NCAA championship. She had admired his poise when Duke lost to UNLV the year before and invited him to stay at the Mirage; he didn’t accept until after Duke dethroned UNLV the following year. (UNLV devolved in scandal the next year and was rarely a factor in March after that, freeing Wynn to pledge her allegiance without betraying the school whose board she once sat on.)

Even with Coach K not on the Duke sidelines (and in AFLAC ads) this year for the first time, she’s excited about the games to come. “Basketball is always going to be a passion of mine,” she says. “I love the game. I love the sport. And I love more than one coach. You know, I know a lot of the guys and just have had a long history in that world.”

Brackets, not NCAA bets, for Wynn

So let’s get down to it. What’s interesting about this year?

“It’s a fascinating year. There’s a lot of parity. It’s not the usual suspects. It’s not being dominated by the Kentuckys and the North Carolinas of the world. That gives other people a chance to share the wealth. And that’s fun.”

Indeed, when we spoke, the March Madness brackets had yet to be announced but it seemed clear my hometown Michigan Wolverines wouldn’t be in it this time but, amazingly, my alma mater Northwestern Wildcats would. Parity indeed.

Wynn tosses out a few teams she’s been hearing good things about:

  • Purdue. “They’ve got this great player, Zachary Edey, who is a killer guy. I think he’s 7-6, [7-4, actually] and a very impressive player.”
  • Houston. “It’s fun to see Houston be so tough because the Final Four is going to be there and it would be so lovely if they could be playing for the championship in Houston. That’s always exciting.”
  • Duke, of course. “Duke has John Scheyer who has been with the program for 10 years and was well tutored by Coach K. He’s one of only three coaches who, in their first season, had an undefeated season at home. So they may do better than what people think.
  • Michigan State: A sentimental favorite given the mass shooting in East Lansing last month. “Tom Izzo is such a great guy, you root for him anyway. He always manages to get the players ready in time.”

Like the rest of us, she’ll do an NCAA championship bracket in a friendly pool – and like the rest of us, it usually “feels more like a lottery than a real informed bracket. Once the games start and I get a sense of the teams, I get more specific. I used to get more invested in the old days when I had time to watch all the games.”

Interestingly, given that her own business is taking bets and March Madness is a big windfall for all of Vegas, Wynn wagers on some sports but this. “For me, personally, I don’t bet on college sports,” she says. “That’s just my own personal take, because I still believe in the wholesomeness of it. I like to keep it a little bit more pristine.”

Teams to watch, other than Duke

Even without Coach K pacing the sidelines this year, she remains a die-hard Duke fan. She and her “best buddy,” former Wynn Resorts and current Caesars Entertainment exec John Pucci, was at the Duke-NC game a few days before our talk. Her grandson graduates from the school in May, in fact.

This is the first time since 1995 in a non-pandemic year that Coach K won’t be running in the plays on the hardwood. Wynn will miss that part of it but is happy for her friend:

“In case you’re interested, Coach K is very happy in retirement. He’s speaking and talking about leadership. I had the privilege of seeing him at the [Wynn Las Vegas] hotel speaking to a NASDAQ conference and he really gets a standing ovation. He is brilliant.”

Cool, cool, cool, but I’ve got a bracket to fill out. Does he have a favorite for this year?

“He did mention several teams that he was watching and thought had a good chance at it.”


“You gotta send me a check for all of this information!”

Sure, sure. If I win.

“He said, without prejudice because he appreciates the programs and the coaches, Kansas, Houston, UCLA, and Purdue.”

Not Duke?

“Well, he always says Duke. And so do I.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayUSA and its related local sites. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected]

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