Updated on 09/16/2011 7:01AM

All four dogs gonna bark


Bookmakers almost always find themselves cheering for underdogs. The betting public tends to favor favorites, so the more upsets the better for bookies.

Take Sid Diamond, race and sports director at the Rampart Casino, which conducted a free contest in which people tried to predict the 16 teams to qualify for the Sweet 16.

Anyone picking all 16 teams would win $5,000. Fifteen correct would net $1,000; 14, $500; 13, $50: and 12 correct would win $25. Most people played the odds, picking most of the favorites or the top four seeds in each region. If all the favorites advanced, the Rampart was going to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On Wednesday, Diamond said, "I'll obviously be pulling for some upsets."

Diamond needn't have worried. On Thursday, East No. 3 seed Southern Cal lost, as well as popular middle seeds like East No. 5 Marquette, West No. 5 Miami-Fla., and West No. 6 Gonzaga. Friday was a little scarier for Diamond as Midwest No. 5 Florida was the only top contender to lose outright. But he was able to breath easier on Saturday when South No. 2 Alabama and West No. 4 Ohio St. fell. The clincher was Sunday when West No. 1 seed Cincinnati lost to UCLA. "That killed the rest of the cards with a chance for 16-for-16," assistant sports book director Eric St. Clair said.

When East No. 3 Georgia and Midwest No. 3 Mississippi St. also lost later on Sunday, the Rampart's accounts payable dropped further. Anyone who picked the top four seeds in each region hit only 10-of-16. It took handicapping and no small degree of luck to get 12 correct, for the minimum payoff.

More than 1,700 people played the contest, way more than would otherwise have visited the Rampart, located on the west side of town. St. Clair said the Rampart paid "a few" of the $1,000 prizes, and a good deal of money, but stressed that the contest was worth it because of the exposure it brought to the book.

I'll also be cheering for all four underdogs Friday. It's not the worst thing to be on the same side as the guys behind the counter.

Southern Illinois (+5) vs. UConn

Even though Missouri, the No. 12 seed in the West, is seeded lower, Southern Illinois is the unlikeliest team in the Sweet 16. While Missouri was ranked No. 2 early in the season, SIU was not highly regarded. But the Salukis are a solid team that started the season with a bang, winning four straight before losing to Illinois 75-72 in the title game of the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 24 as a 16-point dog. The Salukis have wins over tournament teams Indiana and Creighton in the regular season and wins over No. 6 seed Texas Tech and No. 3 seed Georgia in the NCAA's. The Salukis are an athletic team that plays fundamentally sound. UConn had better not take them lightly, or they will be the Salukis next victim.

Texas (+3 1/2) vs. Oregon

This might be Friday's most entertaining game. Oregon lights it up from 3-point territory, and it's fun to watch freshman T.J. Ford run the Texas offense. The Longhorns have overcome the loss of their best big man, Chris Owens, and still they pound the ball inside. This should slow down the Oregon run-and-gun attack and keep the score lower than fans might expect (at 160 points total, this game has the highest over/under in the round of 16).

Texas took Kansas and Oklahoma to overtime, and experience in clutch situations versus top-notch teams bodes well for the Longhorns here.

Kentucky (+6 1/2) vs. Maryland

Kentucky has righted its topsy-turvy season with wins over Valparaiso and Tulsa. Maryland, the No. 1 seed and a formerly No. 1-ranked team this season, is the bette team, but the Terrapins struggled versus Wisconsin before winning in a blowout. Kentucky will not let them off the hook as easily.

Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince bounced back from a quiet 13-point game versus Valpo in the first round to score 41 versus Tulsa in the second round. He's the best player on the floor and should be the difference. Also, there are certain to be more Kentucky fans at the game than Maryland fans, and the SIU-UConn fans who stick around are apt to jump on the underdog bandwagon. This game is going down to the wire. Maryland might pull it out, but not by more than two 3-pointers.

Illinois (+5 1/2) vs. Kansas

If Texas-Oregon isn't the best game of the night, then Illinois-Kansas is. The game is located in Big 10 country, and Illinois will enjoy big crowd support - not as much as they had last week in Chicago but close. Wisconsin fans are still ticked off by comments made by Kansas coach Roy Williams last year, poor-mouthing Wisconsin's 53-41 win over Michigan St. in the 2000 NCAA's, saying it was "a weight-room contest."

Wisconsin fans might actually cheer for Illinois just this once. A stronger nod goes to Illinois if Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich's ankle isn't 100 percent, though Hinrich scored 15 points in 21 minutes in a gutsy performance versus Stanford Saturday. The Illini faced eight conference champs this season, including the other Big Ten co-champs. They're not intimidated by Kansas.