03/01/2006 1:00AM

College hoops value a scarce item


The calendar has turned to March and we're just two weeks away from the madness, March Madness, that is.

Water-cooler talk is heating up as college basketball fans slip "RPI" and "bubble teams" routinely into their conversations and debate which conferences are strongest. The rankings take on added importance as teams try to get a higher seed in the NCAA tournament. Or is it lower seed, since the number is smaller for the top teams? On the Sunday night "Stardust Line" radio show, host John Kelly expressed the same confusion until handicapper Dave Cokin suggested "better seed." That certainly beats being called a bad seed.

All semantics aside, the brackets shouldn't be too hard to set. All the selection committee has to do is look at the preseason rankings or grab a copy of the Nov. 21 Sports Illustrated in which the magazine ranked the 65 teams it projected to make the field. SI was pretty close, especially with the top seeds. The current top six teams in the rankings (Duke, Connecticut, Memphis, Villanova, Gonzaga, and Texas) were all in SI's preseason top 10, with No. 7 George Washington, often referred to as a Cinderella team, being tabbed at No. 21 before the season. The only team in the top 10 that wasn't projected to make the NCAA field is Pittsburgh.

Oddsmakers here in Las Vegas pretty much had the top teams fleshed out before the season, too, as the favorites in the future books haven't changed much. Just their odds have been lowered as the teams lived up to their potential and sports books took on more liability after bettors loaded up on the logical choices.

Heading into this weekend, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which sends its odds to most of the sports books in the state of Nevada, has Duke and UConn as the co-favorites at 5-2, though not many books have either team that high anymore. Station Casinos has Duke as the 4-5 favorite while Caesars Palace was offering 8-5 earlier this week. Stations had UConn at 9-5 and Caesars was dealing 2-1.

Anyone looking to bet the second tier of teams will really need to shop around as Memphis is anywhere from 6-1 to 12-1, Villanova is as low at 7-2 at Stations and as high as 8-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton, Gonzaga is between 10-1 and 25-1, and Texas has been pounded down into the 4-1 to 8-1 range as the Longhorns try to become the first school to complete the football/basketball title sweep.

Updating other future books

With many of the top hockey players competing for their home countries in the Olympics, the NHL took a two-week hiatus. Play resumed Tuesday as teams started the second half of the regular season. A check of the LVSC futures board shows the Ottawa Senators as the 3-1 favorite to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since the franchise's current reincarnation in 1992.

The Detroit Red Wings, who led the league with 83 points in the standings before the break, are the second choice at 4-1, with the Philadelphia Flyers at 5-1 and Dallas Stars at 6-1.

When Stanley Cup futures were first posted here last July, the Carolina Hurricanes were listed at 75-1, but now they lead the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference with a conference-high 83 points and are down to 8-1.

* Major League Baseball has a similar situation. Many of its international stars are off playing in the World Baseball Classic instead of at spring training.

Even though our country imports a lot of talent, the U.S. is still the 7-5 favorite in the World Baseball Classic, which was slated to begin Thursday, with the Dominican Republic at 8-5, Venezuela at 5-1, and Cuba at 8-1.

When the major leaguers return to their employers and start the season next month, the Yankees will open as the 7-2 favorite, with the Cardinals and Red Sox joining the defending champion White Sox at 5-1, the Mets at 7-1, and the Braves and Angels at 10-1.

* In the NBA, the Pistons and Spurs seem to be on a collision course to have a rematch of last year's NBA finals, which the Spurs won in seven games, and the future-book odds reflect that. The Pistons are between 4-5 and 6-5 at most books with the Spurs available in the 2-1 to 5-2 range. There is then a dropoff to the Heat, Mavericks, and Suns in the 6-1 to 7-1 range, and then a huge dropoff to the rest of the league.

* The Colts have been solidified as the Super Bowl XLI favorite at between 7-2 and 9-2 at most books, with the defending champion Steelers, Seahawks, and Patriots in the 6-1 to 8-1 range, the Panthers and Cowboys around 10-1, and the Broncos, Chargers, and Bears in the 12-1 to 15-1 neighborhood. The Las Vegas Hilton has the AFC -6 over the NFC in its early Super Bowl line with a total of 47 1/2 points.

Parity in local Nextel Cup race

Station Casinos has odds up for the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a week from Sunday.

In what should be a wide-open affair, no driver is less than double digits and there are 10 drivers at between 10-1 and 14-1. Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth are the co-top choices at 10-1, with Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and Jamie McMurray at 11-1, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart at 12-1, and Las Vegas natives Kurt and Kyle Busch both at 14-1.