03/26/2003 12:00AM

Changing gears back to favorites


Favorites make me sweat.

I love betting underdogs. Give me a live dog and I can watch my bet comfortable in the knowledge that even if my team doesn't win, I can still cash if it beats the spread.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament last week, I saw a lot of live underdogs on Thursday's card. It was a day of relatively few anxious moments as dogs went 12-3-1 against the spread and my pointspread plays were 5-1 (plus another win on the Western Kentucky-Illinois under).

Friday was a different matter. I reluctantly went with five favorites and eked out a 3-2 mark, though I needed Indiana (pick-em) to rally from an 11-point halftime deficit vs. Alabama to even fare that well.

A similar situation is setting up this week. In Thursday's games, I went with two dogs (Marquette +5 vs. Pittsburgh, Duke +3 vs. Kansas) and two favorites (Kentucky -12 vs. Wisconsin, Arizona -8 vs. Notre Dame). I felt comfortable with that mix.

But after looking at all four of Friday's games independently, I am again taking all favorites. It's an uneasy feeling laying major points, but one thing I've learned is that you can't bet underdogs blindly.

It's similar to horseracing. I love playing longshots, but there's a smart and dumb way to do it. You can't let the odds make you start reading things between the past performance lines that aren't there. If you're just taking stabs at 20-1 and 30-1 shots, you'll end up in the poorhouse right along with the chalk players.

So, even though I could make a case for some of Friday's underdogs, the value in each game appears to be on the favorites, though I say that with some trepidation.

Oklahoma (-7 1/2) vs. Butler

Butler has been an underdog player's dream so far in this tournament, winning outright vs. Mississippi State and Louisville. The Bulldogs were 7 1/2-point dogs in each game. And look here, they're 7 1/2-point dogs vs. Oklahoma.

The question is: If No. 5 seed Mississippi State and No. 4 seed Louisville were favored by 7 1/2, how come No. 1 seed Oklahoma isn't being forced to give more points? A lot of it has to do with everyone falling in love with a Cinderella story. The other factor is the lingering groin injury to Oklahoma guard Hollis Price.

But, the Sooners beat South Carolina State and California by comfortable margins without Price at full strength and can do it here, too. Butler's only hope is to light up the scoreboard with three-point shots. Oklahoma's Quannas White is better than any of Butler's guards, and the Sooners have a huge edge in the paint that they'll be able to exploit all night long. My only fear here is a backdoor cover.

PLAY: Oklahoma for 1 unit.

Syracuse (-5) vs. Auburn

Auburn defied its critics with two wins last week and is another tempting underdog, but it is running into a Syracuse team that has matured with the development of its freshman and sophomore phenoms. The Orangemen have won 13 of their last 15 games (both losses were to UConn, another Sweet 16 team) and are 10-5 against the spread during that stretch.

Auburn just doesn't have the horses to run with Syracuse's backcourt of Billy Edelin and Gerry McNamara and will also have their hands full with emerging superstar Carmello Anthony.

Throw in the fact that this game is being played in Albany, N.Y., and what will amount to a home game for Syracuse. Five points isn't too much to give.

PLAY: Syracuse for 1 unit.

Texas (-3) vs. UConn

Here's another game where the home crowd could really have an impact. San Antonio is the site of this regional semifinal, and the Longhorns will be playing in front of a lot of their fans.

Not that they'll need that edge. Texas, the No. 1 seed, matches up well with UConn. T.J. Ford and Royal Ivey can do it all in the backcourt, and have tournament experience. UConn has the edge in the frontcourt with Emeka Okafor, but the Longhorns can neutralize him with Brian Boddicker and James Thomas in the middle.

This just comes down to the better team being asked not to lay too many points (in fact, it's the cheapest price on any of the No. 1 seeds) on what amounts to a game played on its home court.

PLAY: Texas for 1 unit.

Maryland (-3 1/2) vs. Michigan State

This is the toughest call of the day. After watching Michigan State thoroughly dominate No. 2 seed Florida 68-46 Sunday, I was hoping oddsmakers would make this line around pick-em.

But even with decreased value, I have to side with the defending national champs on experience alone. Senior guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, who hit the running three-point shot to beat NC-Wilmington in the first round, should make the difference in the clutch against a Michigan State team that will be a major force next year. Maryland's last win suggests they could simply be a team of destiny.

PLAY: Maryland for 1 unit.

Tournament record heading into Thursday's action: 9-3 for net profit of 5.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).