03/10/2003 12:00AM

On-the-bubble UNLV gets test

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A week before the NCAA tournament begins and the sports book really get packed with bettors, March Madness comes to Las Vegas with the Mountain West Conference tournament.

UNLV has the homecourt advantage as it plays host to the league's postseason tournaments at the Thomas & Mack Center. Women's games start on Wednesday, with the men tipping off Thursday.

The men's first-round games will be BYU vs. New Mexico at noon, Wyoming vs. Colorado State at 2:30 p.m., Utah vs. Air Force at 6 p.m., and UNLV vs. San Diego St. at 9 p.m.

Conventional wisdom has BYU, with a record of 22-7 and an RPI of 13, and Utah, at 22-6 with an RPI of 17, already in the field of 65. Wyoming (19-9 and an RPI of 53) and UNLV (19-9 and an RPI of 44) are considered on the bubble and perhaps in need of winning the conference tournament to get an NCAA berth.

But some people think the Mountain West might get a third bid regardless. Last weekend, CBS Sportsline had Wyoming as its "last team in the field, edging Minnesota, Texas Tech, LSU, and Tennessee."

Local handicapper Tim Trushel says that, according to the ratings the NCAA uses, the Mountain West could be considered worthy of a third bid.

"For whatever reason, the RPI, a formula no one seems to totally understand, is slanted toward the teams in Utah," said Trushel, pointing out that BYU and Utah are ranked ahead of teams in power conferences with similar records. For instance, Big 10 champ Wisconsin is 22-6 but its RPI is only 23. "Top to bottom, the Mountain West is rated very high, so it figures that they could get a third team in."

When you take out the top conferences such as the Big 10, Big 12, Big East, ACC, and ACC, the Mountain West has the highest combined RPI of all other conferences in the nation.

"If a team like Temple wins the Atlantic-10 tournament, they could have four teams - with Dayton, Xavier, and St. Joseph's also expected to get in," Trushel said. "If they can get four, there's no reason the Mountain West shouldn't get three."

But no one knows for sure . . . until Selection Sunday.

"For all the time people spend talking about bubble teams, these things usually work themselves out," Trushel said.

Golf bets still a go

If you bet a baseball game, and it's delayed until the next day (or later in the year), it's ruled no-contest for wagering purposes. Bookmakers were happy Sunday that they have different house rules for other sports.

In the Ford Championship at Doral, golfer Scott Hoch was in a playoff with Jim Furyk, and the sun was setting and the moon was rising over Miami. On the 17th green, the second playoff hole, Hoch claimed he couldn't see well enough to read his birdie putt.

Play was suspended, and the two players returned to the course on Monday morning. Hoch made his nine-foot birdie to match Furyk and then birdied the 18th to win the tournament.

"Our rules state that it's official as long as the tournament is completed within one week of the scheduled dates," said Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Palms. That same rule is usually posted for other sports that are routinely pushed back a day or two or more: auto racing and tennis being the obvious examples.

Hoch went off at 40-1. Sherman said the house would have done a little better if Furyk, who was 15-1, had won the tournament.

Vijah Singh is the 10-1 favorite for this weekend's Honda Classic. Well, actually, the field is the favorite. Sherman opened the field at 5-2, but when he got news Monday that Furyk was a late entry, he lowered the field to 9-5.

It might be worth a look around to see if any other books are asleep at the switch and have a field (including Furyk) at higher odds.

A little help from the oddsmaker

Sometimes you can use a knowledegable oddsmaker like that and find better value at a competing sports book. That was the case last weekend in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 400 NASCAR race at Atlanta.

Micah Roberts, the auto racing oddsmaker at Palace Station that I've quoted many times, really liked the chances of Bobby Labonte. Stations only had him at 8-1 even though he was readily available around Las Vegas at 12-1.

Labonte won impressively, leading 172 of the 325 laps, and pulling away after a late duel with Jeff Gordon.

Cash up for grabs in contests

The progressive jackpot in Texas Station's single-property contest hasn't been hit in five weeks, so the pool has grown to $950 for Wednesday's contest.

In the contest, which costs $10 to enter, players pick one horse (plus an alternate) in each of the races on the Santa Anita card. Points are awarded for the mutuel price of the selected horse, plus 9 bonus points for win, 6 for place and 3 for show. The winner gets 60 percent of the entry fees, with 30 percent going to the second-place finisher and 10 percent for third.

But there is a bonus pool that the Texas Station seeds itself, starting at $200. The threshold is set at 135 points. Each day it's not hit, the required total gets reduced by one point and the prize grows by $50. Wednesday's target score is 121 points for the $950 jackpot.

* It's easier to explain Thursday's free contest that will be run at the Suncoast and Barbary Coast. The contest will start with the seventh race at Aqueduct (estimated post time is 12:50 p.m. PST) and also use the eighth and ninth at the Big A and races two and three at Santa Anita. Players pick one horse per race and an alternate. Entries will be combined from the two properties with $1,500 for the winner and $500 for second place. All ties will be paid evenly.

* Looking ahead to the weekend, the grand prize in the Imperial Palace Super Saturday contest is expected to exceed $10,000. Contestants pay $10 per entry and pick a horse and an alternate on three Gulfstream and three Santa Anita races. This week's target score is 145.