04/03/2003 12:00AM

Any Madness remaining?


The calendar has turned to April, so March Madness is over, right?

That might read like a joke, but in a way it's funny because it's true. The NCAA men's basketball tournament puts up its Final Four showcase Saturday afternoon and evening, but it's pretty much anticlimactic compared to the excitement of the last two-plus weeks. With 16 games each of the first two days of the tourney and eight more that Saturday and Sunday, followed by another batch of games last week, a lot of the most thrilling moments - and the ones that will take hold in our collective consciousness - have already taken place.

For anecdotal proof, I ask you to consider those television commercials of last-second buzzer beaters that have been airing throughout the tournament. The only one from a championship game was the North Carolina State highlight of Lorenzo Charles's dunk to upset Houston in 1983. All the others happened in earlier rounds.

This could be a typical conversation between college basketball fans this summer:

Fan 1: My favorite time of year is March Madness.

Fan 2: Me, too. Remember that running three-pointer Drew Nicholas of Maryland hit to keep from being eliminated in the first round?

Fan 1: Yeah, that was classic. The best game was Arizona surviving overtime against Gonzaga.

Fan 2: I'll grant you that, but how about No. 12 seed Butler knocking off Mississippi State and Louisville to make the Sweet 16?

Fan 1: That was a nice Cinderella story, but so was Auburn, which a lot of people thought didn't deserve to be in the tournament in the first place. Yet, they knocked off ACC champ Wake Forest and made the Sweet 16.

Fan 2: So true, but Marquette's upset of No. 1-ranked Kentucky was even more impressive.

Fan 1: Oh, yeah, who can forget that? Hey, by the way, who was in the Final Four?

Fan 2: Um, um . . . good question!

For the record, Kansas faces Marquette in the first semifinal Saturday with Texas and Syracuse meeting in the nightcap.

Loyalty can be a weakness for bettors. Horseplayers know this very well. It's tempting to remember a horse coming through for you in the past, and letting that influence your decision in today's race.

A lot of basketball bettors are facing a similar dilemma Saturday as all four teams have been very good against the spread in the tournament. Kansas and Marquette both failed to cover in their opening-round games, but have each covered three straight times since. Syracuse is also 3-1 against the spread, having failed only in its 1-point win over Auburn in the round of 16. Texas has the worst spread record of the finalists at 2-1-1, though the push was its 4-point win over UConn in the regional semifinals, and a lot of bettors cashed with tickets at 3 and 3 1/2, so in their eyes Texas is also 3-1.

But that's all history, as memorable as it may be, and the task is to see how the teams match up for Saturday's games.

Kansas (-4 1/2) vs. Marquette

Marquette's improbable run to the Final Four shows that it's dangerous to underestimate it. Marquette is a well-balanced and fundamentally sound team that plays great defense. But I feel its luck will run out against Kansas, a team with even more balance.

Both teams have advanced even when their stars have had off nights. Marquette's Dwayne Wade struggled the first two games of the tournament and was picked up by backcourt mate Travis Diener. But those games were vs. Holy Cross and Missouri. Marquette's in a world of trouble if Wade falters vs. Kansas.

Kansas' Kirk Hinrich scored only 2 points in the regional semifinals vs. Duke and was bailed out by Nick Collison. Then, Collison was in foul trouble vs. Arizona in the regional final and Hinrich bounced back with 28 points. That one-two punch should be the difference.

The Jayhawks can also pick up a lot of easy points in transition with Hinrich running the break. Even if the Golden Eagles are able to slow down the Jayhawks' transition game, Kansas can still pound the ball inside to Collison.

PLAY: Kansas (-4 1/2) for 1 unit.

Syracuse (+3) vs. Texas

This line opened at Texas -3 1/2 last weekend and has been bet down to 3. I think the money is on the right side.

Syracuse has been shutting down opponents with its 2-3 zone, seemingly stretching from sideline to sideline with their long arms. Texas' T.J. Ford is a wizard, but he's still dependent on his teammates to knock down the shots, and that will be tougher vs. the Orangemen, who are holding opponents to 36.3 percent shooting and only 61.5 points per game.

Critics point to the fact Syracuse is a young team, but by this time of year the freshmen and sophomores have to be upgraded to sophomores and juniors. Plus, freshman Carmelo Anthony is playing like an NBA player regardless of his age. The young team has really come together, and their relative "lack of experience" is no longer a factor.

PLAY: Syracuse (+3) for 1 unit.

Championship game (Monday)

There are four possible matchups for Monday's title game, so I reached out to Las Vegas Sports Consultants senior oddsmaker Cesar Robaina for potential pointspreads. Adding the caveat that how the teams perform in Saturday's night national spotlight could have a big impact on the actual line (and also that these are his opinions and LVSC's actual line takes many other oddsmakers' thoughts into consideration), Robaina said Kansas would be around a 1- or 1 1/2-point favorite over Texas and a 4 1/2-point pick over Syracuse. Texas would be about a 3-point favorite over Marquette. A Syracuse-Marquette final would be around pick-em.

"Kansas and Texas are really, really close, as are Syracuse and Marquette," Robaina said. "Marquette might actually be favored over Syracuse because bettors would probably see them as a little better since they would have beaten Pitt, Kentucky, and Kansas in succession."

With those lines in mind, I would take the Kansas-Marquette winner (and obviously I'm pulling for Kansas) over either Texas or Syracuse.

PLAY: Kansas or Marquette, 1 unit.

Tournament record: 13-7 for net profit of 5.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).