03/06/2003 1:00AM

Buildup as exciting as tourney


We are in the midst of the most exciting time of the college basketball season. No, the NCAA tournament didn't start without you knowing about it.

March Madness actually begins with the conference tournaments that get into full swing this weekend.

The plots and subplots will unfold every night as teams secure invites to the big dance while others get their bubbles burst. A lot of this late-season suspense is reserved for teams that won't do much in the tournament. But for many schools, it's all about making the NCAA tournament and having the chance to wear Cinderella's slipper, even if for only one night.

When all is said and done, Cinderella is usually back to scrubbing floors as Prince Charming runs off with some well-bred debutante, but the thrill of the chase can be intriguing.

The word parity - which Webster's defines as "the quality or state of being equal or equivalent," but which modern sports fans see as a synonym for mediocrity - is most often associated with the NFL, when any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. Well, parity also applies to college basketball, when any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday, Big Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday (usually just Ivy League games), and especially Saturday.

The limit on scholarships certainly has leveled the playing field so teams can't stockpile talent to keep their rivals from getting decent players, and now with players jumping to the NBA directly from high school, or after their freshman or sophomore years, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has narrowed.

All of this leads to parity. Handicapper Tim Trushel, who hosts "The Vegas Sportswire" radio show in Las Vegas, also says it's putting the squeeze on mid-majors - second-tier conferences.

"We all have short memories, but there just seems to be a lot more teams on the bubble than in recent memory," Trushel said, "and a lot of the at-large bids are going to go to the middle-of-the-pack teams in the major conferences. When you have a team like Colorado (17-10 in the Big 12 and an RPI of 47) or a Boston College (16-9 in the Big East and an RPI of 46), it's going to be hard for the selection committee to tell those teams they can't get in the tournament over teams in weaker conferences who play softer schedules."

RPI (Rating Percentage Index) is a formula that helps the NCAA Selection Committee compare the strength of teams beyond won-loss record. It also incorporates their opponents' winning percentage, and the average winning percentage of their opponents' opponents.

It will remind some of you of the BCS formula in college football. It's far from a perfect system.

Trushel said a mid-major is going to be hard-pressed to make the 65-team NCAA field unless it has an RPI ranking in the 40's or 50's. He says that Creighton, with an RPI of 31, is one of the rare mid-majors that is a shoe-in, along with fellow Missouri Valley member Southern Illinois, with an RPI of 42. He says it's not such a sure thing for teams such as Butler, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Gonzaga, and Weber St. For instance, Butler won 25 games last year, but lost in the first round of the Horizon League's tournament and was snubbed on Selection Sunday. There are no guarantees.

"The thing working against teams like Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee is that the Horizon League format this year gives them both a bye until the semifinals," Trushel said.

"The good news is they only have to win two to win the title, but the bad news is they don't get to pad their records with a couple of easy wins in the early rounds. Butler, which improved its schedule this year and has an RPI of 41, should get a bid regardless, but Wisconsin-Milwaukee is out of the mix unless they win the conference title."

There was more bad news for the mid-major fence-sitters as of Wednesday night. A slew of major conference bubble teams came through with victories: North Carolina St., Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, Michigan St., and the aforementioned Colorado. That moves a lot of them a step closer to at-large bids and might force more mid-majors to win their tourneys. And it could get worse.

"Though it's not likely, if a hot team like LSU wins the SEC tournament or Minnesota wins the Big 10, that takes away a bid that the mid-majors are relying on," Trushel said.

But it's not just the mid-majors that need help. Bubble teams in major conferences are also going to be scoreboard watching.

"Texas Tech is a great example," Trushel said. "Heading into this week, they were 16-9 and needing a win against Kansas Monday night. They lost [65-56] and are now in a tough spot. Even if they make a great run in the Big 12 tourney, if teams like Butler or Creighton or SIU don't win their conference tournament and other teams get those automatic bids, there might not be an opening for teams like Tech."

So how, you may be asking, does all this relate to picking some winners against the spread? Obviously, we're going to be seeing some very motivated teams during conference tournament play. Some of the teams mentioned above, along with squads such as Saint Louis, Central Michigan, Southwest Missouri St., Louisiana-Lafayette, UNLV, Wyoming, Western Kentucky, Manhattan, and Pepperdine, know they have to run the table in their conference tourneys or settle for the NIT.

It's always a good idea to bet on a motivated quality team, but keep in mind if these teams were so good (and capable of putting in a good performance at will), they wouldn't be in this situation to begin with. In addition, the oddsmakers know who the "must-win" teams are and will make you pay a premium with the pointspread.

Another part of handicapping these games - in the later rounds you often have a bubble team in a must-win situation versus a top-ranked team that is also motivated to improve its NCAA seeding. For instance, a No. 3 seeding is far better than a No. 5, so don't make the assumption that good teams have less to play for. They won't roll over.

"Bettors have to take all of this into consideration and pick their spots," Trushel said.