03/13/2006 12:00AM

Bracket season has officially begun

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During the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday afternoon, viewers here pretty much reacted like any other group watching at bars and homes across the country.

At the Wynn Las Vegas sports books, fans cheered when their alma maters and favorite teams were officially announced in , and gasped in surprise when teams seemingly on the outside looking in were added (Air Force, Utah St., Seton Hall). Mixtures of oohs, ahhhs, and groans broke out when teams were seeded better than expected (most notably, Tennessee seeded No. 2 in the Washington, D.C., regional) or lower than expected (George Washington only got a No. 8 seed despite a 26-2 record).

But talks of snubs and questionable seeds quickly gave way to everyone trying to figure out what the betting lines would be and who could be this year's Cinderella story.

Over at the offices of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, right across from McCarran International Airport, chief oddsmaker Ken White and his staff - including Tony Sinisi, John Harper, Mike Seba, and Dan O'Brien - started going through the games and hammering out the lines.

"At this time of the year, we should all be in the same ballpark with our numbers, but we did have some differences," White said. "Some of our guys had Iowa as high as a 12-point favorite over Northwestern St., while I had it at only 3 1/2. We also had some interesting discussion on Winthrop vs. Tennessee. We sent it Tennessee -7, but I think people will be surprised when they see this Winthrop team play."

White said LVSC sent out recommendations to its sports-book clients at 5:34 p.m., just over 1 1/2 hours after the selection show went off the air.

At 6:15 p.m., the Stardust was the first to post the opening odds for Tuesday's play-in game between Monmouth and Hampton as well as the 16 Thursday games and 15 Friday games (the 16th game Friday will be Villanova vs. the Monmouth-Hampton winner).

As usual, the top seeds were generally the biggest favorites. The three No. 1 seeds with their opponent already determined were Duke -26 vs. Southern, UConn -23 vs. Albany, and Memphis -16 vs. Oral Roberts. The No. 2 seeds were mostly the next-biggest favorites - with the exception of the Tennessee-Winthrop matchup, which most books opened at -8 1/2 or -9 but was bet toward LVSC's send-out - and so on, down to the highly competitive No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchups.

Something interesting to note is that there are usually one or two games in which a better-seeded team is made an underdog by Vegas oddsmakers, most often in an No. 8 vs. No. 9 game but sometimes in No. 7 vs. No. 10 or even No. 6 vs. No. 11 games. But this year, every better-seeded team opened as a favorite.

During the opening hours of wagering Sunday night, 10 games were bet enough at the Stardust for them to move it off the opening number, with nine of those seeing early money on the underdogs.

White said he was surprised to hear that stat, because since he has taken over at LVSC, he feels they have taken a lot of value away from the sharp bettors and shaded the lines lower, especially by concentrating on smaller conferences and knowing the strengths of teams that fly under most people's radar.

"In past years, you wouldn't have seen a team like Bucknell getting only 4 1/2 points vs. an SEC team like Arkansas or Davidson getting just 12 points vs. a No. 2 seed like Ohio State from the Big Ten," White said. "It's to a point where there might be more value on the favorites."

LVSC made UConn the 3-1 favorite to win the whole tournament, with fellow No. 1 seeds Duke at 7-2 and Villanova at 4-1. Memphis is next at 6-1 along with the No. 2 seed in its Oakland Regional, UCLA. The other No. 2 seeds are Ohio St. at 8-1, Texas at 10-1, and a huge dropoff to Tennessee at 30-1. Defending national champion North Carolina - my pick to peak at the right time and run the table - is 10-1.

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Photo finish in Nextel Cup race

Out of the 270 laps of Sunday's UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson led for only one - but it was the only one that mattered, as he took the checkered flag to win the Nextel Cup race here for the second straight year.

Johnson was among the betting favorites all week long at local sports books, ranging from as high as 10-1 down to 6-1. For most of the race, it looked as if Matt Kenseth was going to cruise to victory, but a caution flag with three laps to go caused a restart and two extra laps to be run after the track was cleared, allowing Johnson to narrow the gap and pass Kenseth on the final turn in a thrilling finish.

But when Johnson, driving the No. 48 Chevy, overtook Kenseth, in his No. 17 Ford, it did more than alter the outcome of the bets on the race winner. Consider these props, and see how well the oddsmakers have this sport figured out and how they've made these pretty much coin-flips for gamblers:

* The pivotal yellow flag was the seventh caution of the race, landing on the total of 7 posted at Station Casinos.

* Johnson was the 11th lap leader (the over/under was set at 11 1/2).

* The winner on the prop for winning car number switched from 0-23 to 24-99.

* It also flipped from odd to even.

* The prop for "winning driver's last name will begin with" went from "K through Z" to "A through J." Mighty convenient that the cutoff on that was "J" for Johnson and "K" for Kenseth.

* As mentioned above, the winning car manufacturer flipped from Ford to Chevy, but there were other props that came down to the wire. Finishing in the top 10 were five Chevrolets (the over/under was 4 1/2), three Fords (over/under 3 1/2), and two Dodges (over/under 2).

* The prop that was the most off was the margin of victory. Stations had it at 1.522 seconds, but the margin was way under that at 0.045 second.