03/24/2003 1:00AM

Bettors eagerly greet Sweet 16


No sooner had one of the busiest sports betting weekends of the year concluded, and bettors were already loading up on the next round of action.

Actually, as matchups were set Saturday and Sunday, sports books put up lines on Sweet 16 games for this Thursday and Friday.

Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country and No. 1 seed in the Midwest, is the biggest favorite as a 12-point choice over Wisconsin. That's the first game to tip off Thursday (7:10 p.m. EST). The last game of the night is the most competitive matchup, according to odds-makers, with Kansas a 3-point favorite over Duke in a West Regional semifinal.

Early bettors also see the Texas-Connecticut game Friday as competitive and knocked Texas from an opening favorite of -3 1/2 to -3 as money came in Monday morning on UConn.

The biggest early line move in the Sweet 16 was Pittsburgh, which was bet from a 4-point favorite vs. Marquette up to 5. Early money Sunday afternoon also knocked Oklahoma from an 8-point to a 7 1/2-point favorite over Butler. Late-night bettors backed Arizona from -8 to -8 1/2 vs. Notre Dame and knocked Syracuse from -5 1/2 to -5 vs. Auburn.

The only other line besides Kansas-Duke to remain unchanged was Maryland -3 1/2 over Michigan State.

Sunday a bracket buster, again

For whatever reason, the Sunday at the end of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament has always produced a lot of upsets. It happened again this year.

If you're like most people, the Midwest and West regionals (which were mostly contested Saturday) of your NCAA bracket are probably pretty much intact. But the side of your bracket with the East and South is probably blotchy because of eliminated teams.

No. 2 seeds Wake Forest and Florida lost to No. 10 Auburn and No. 7 Michigan State, respectively, Sunday afternoon and were also joined at the tournament exit doors by No. 4 Louisville (a loser to No. 12 Butler) in the East and No. 3 Xavier (a loser to No. 6 Maryland) in the South.

On Saturday, the only outright upset was No. 5 Notre Dame beating No. 4 Illinois.

The war in Iraq had little impact on attendance and handle in the sports books. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the major decisions went against the bettors. Through Saturday, of the 31 pointspreads that moved from the opening number, the money was on the losing side 21 times. Bettors ended the weekend on a winning note as six of the eight games Sunday were bet in the winning direction. Bettors were on the wrong side in only Oklahoma State's loss to Syracuse and Purdue's loss to Texas.

After going 12-3-1 against the spread Thursday, underdogs didn't fare as well the rest of the weekend, going 6-9-1 Friday and 3-5 on both Saturday and Sunday. Despite the three outright upsets Sunday, dogs went 3-5 and the favorites covered every other game. Including the play-in game, dogs hold only a 24-23-2 edge.

Rampart gets a scare

It would be harder to find someone happier about "upset Sunday" than Sid Diamond, race and sports book director at the Rampart. For the second year in a row, he gave customers a free shot at $5,000 if they could name the Sweet 16, paying down to $25 to those going 12 for 16.

Through Saturday's action, he was sweating big time with only two highly ranked seeds eliminated (both were No. 4 seeds in the Midwest and West, with No. 5 seeds taking their place) and all of the 1-4 seeds still alive in the East and South. The Rampart was going to have to pay out a lot of money if all the top seeds survived.

"We're very happy today, but we were nervous after Saturday's games," said Diamond, after watching No. 4 Louisville, No. 3 Xavier, No. 2 Wake Forest, and No. 2 Florida all lose Sunday. "We had a lot of people come in, so it was a huge success. We took a chance. If you have no jeopardy, you have no entries. So it turned out well for us, and it turned out well for some people who will be collecting some free money."

Just no big money.

* My bankroll fared pretty well Thursday and Friday. I went 6-1 on seven plays on Thursday's card (winners were Western Kentucky, Western Kentucky-Illinois under, Gonzaga, Central Michigan, Colorado State, and Weber State; lone loser was Vermont), and eked out a winning day by going 3-2 Friday (winners were Kentucky, Oklahoma State, and Indiana; losers were St. Joseph's and Oregon).

Overall, the bankroll went 9-3 (75 percent) for a net profit of 5.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Weekend's biggest winner

So who was the biggest winner in Las Vegas over the weekend? Me? No, not by a longshot. The sports books? Nope. Professional bettors? Nope.

The hands-down winner was a 25-year-old software engineer from Los Angeles. He was in town watching and wagering on March Madness with friends and family at the Excalibur.

His uncle told him about Megabucks, a statewide progressive slot machine jackpot that had reached a world record $39 million. The early slate of NCAA games wrapped up early Friday afternoon and he decided to take a shot. He had gone through about $100 on the machine by 1:30 p.m., hit the button for another $3 play (it's a $1 slot, but you must play the maximum three coins to be eligible for the progressive), and turned away for a second. When he looked back, the winning symbols had lined up on his machine.

Bedlam broke loose as gamblers around him either cheered his good luck or cursed for being so close to winning a fortune.

The winner refused to have International Game Technology, the manufacturer of the Megabucks machines, release his name or grant interviews. But IGT said the winner may have been destined to win the jackpot since his date of birth contains three sevens and an 11.

Lucky numbers indeed.