03/01/2002 12:00AM

Best hoops bets before NCAA tourney

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Most college basketball fans understandably have their eyes fixed on the NCAA tournament, which starts in a week and a half, but many bettors are more excited by the two weeks that lead up to the Big Dance.

The stretch run of the regular season and the conference tournaments are seen by many professional bettors in Las Vegas as the last chance to find soft lines that they can beat with regularity. When the NCAA tournament begins, just 65 teams remain and all are trying their best. Oddsmakers can really focus in on those teams and the lines tend to be much tougher to beat.

But for now, oddsmakers are still juggling which teams are trying to improve their seeding, which teams might be coasting because they have a tourney bid sewn up, which teams are on the bubble, and which teams might have given up on their season.

Saturday, for instance, college basketball oddsmakers had to make lines on 60 regular-season games and 25 conference tournament games, most of which had matchups they didn't know before Friday's games were complete. They can't possibly devote as much time to each of those games as they will to the 32 first-round games in the NCAA tournament. And information isn't as readily available on many of these games as it will be for next week's games, when every team will be under the microscope.

When betting conference tournament games, give an edge to talented bubble teams that can make the NCAA with a strong showing, and avoid teams without much to gain, especially if it is playing a comparable team with much more motivation.

Basketball picks available online

Professional handicapper Tim Trushel, who hosts a local radio show 7 to 9 a.m. every Monday through Friday on KENO AM-1460, has organized "The Vegas Sportswire Five-O Hoops Invitational" with 50 handicappers making 50 basketball selections over 50 days. The contest began last Monday and runs through April 15.

First prize in the winner-take-all contest is $5,000 cash and $5,000 in an offshore account with betallsports.com, the tournament's sponsor.

Contestants can choose any NBA or college side or total and must make a minimum of three plays a week and a maximum of 10. Trushel invites five or six handicappers to appear on the second hour of his show each day to discuss their top plays, and all selections are posted by 1 p.m. Pacific at www.sportswireonline.com.

Early leaders entering Friday's action were Tony George of Midwest Sports Consultants at 5-0 (+5 units), Scott Spencer of Scott Spencer Sports at 6-1 (+4.9 units), and Fletcher of Mad Jack Sports at 7-2-1 (+4.8 units).

Ralph Siraco, free donuts

At this time of year, horse racing also takes a prominent place in race and sports books here in Las Vegas as people get Derby fever. The Orleans is hosting a seminar/interview session at 9 a.m. Monday with Southern California jockey Garrett Gomez and trainer Jack Carava. "RaceDay Las Vegas" radio host Ralph Siraco will moderate the program, which will include free donuts.

The Orleans will also be offering a free $1,000 handicapping contest on the first five races at Gulfstream Park. First post is 10 a.m.

On Sunday, the Fiesta in North Las Vegas begins its free Big 5 Pony Express contest. Five races will be chosen from various tracks, concentrating on the top stakes of the day and other competitive races. Each contestant picks a horse in each race (plus an alternate in case of a scratch) and earns points based on the horse's mutuel price plus bonuses of 10 points for first, five for second, and two for third. The entrant compiling the most points collects $500, and prizes are paid through 10th place.

Paul McCartney subs for Tyson

Because of Mike Tyson's failure to secure a Nevada boxing license, the MGM Grand had to scrap plans for his tentatively scheduled fight with Britain's Lennox Lewis on April 6. However, the MGM Grand has found another Brit with drawing power: Paul McCartney, who will perform at the Grand Garden Arena April 5-6. The MGM will also host a high-end baccarat tournament that same weekend to attract more high rollers. McCartney tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday.

* Speaking of boxing, former ice skater Tonya Harding and ex-convict Amy Fisher, the mistress of Joey Buttafucco, are scheduled to fight on a Fox special to be aired March 13. The JW Marriott has made Harding a fictitious -220 favorite, though the Gaming Control Board won't allow the casino to take bets because it's not a sanctioned bout. Danny Bonaduce and Barry Williams will also square off in a Partridge Family vs. Brady Bunch grudge match. Rap singer Vanilla Ice is slated to fight a mystery guest. Maybe it's the guy from Milli Vanilli.

Bellagio offers high-stakes poker

The Bellagio, which already has one of the premier poker rooms in the city, is entering the high-end poker tournament market. Binion's Horseshoe is at the top of the tourney list with its famous World Series of Poker, which this year runs from April 19 through May 24.

The Bellagio will try to lure top players with tournaments bookending the WSOP. A $3,000 buy-in tourney will be held at the Bellagio, April 17-19, and then a $10,000 buy-in event (the same entry fee as the championship event at the WSOP) will be held at the end of May.

In addition to this new competition from Bellagio, Binion's is also fighting a lawsuit from its own employees who claim they didn't get their fair share of tip money from last year's World Series of Poker.