03/23/2007 12:00AM

Defense should key Bruins' win


LAS VEGAS - Thursday's regional semifinals were pretty indicative of what usually happens in the NCAA tournament: the Cinderella stories end before midnight and the top teams end up playing for the championship.

Kansas and Ohio St., the No. 1 seeds in the West and South regions, respectively, both survived scares - Kansas nipping Southern Illinois 61-58 and Ohio St. rallying from a 20-point deficit to beat Tennessee 85-84. They will play Saturday against the No. 2 seeds in their regions, UCLA and Memphis, who also won tough games.

In fact, Thursday was a great night of basketball and it'll be hard for Saturday's matchups to equal that, though oddsmakers think they will be competitive battles if you put stock in the fact both point spreads are around a single basket.

While the favorites won three of the four games Thursday (Memphis was actually a 3-point underdog to No. 3 seed Texas A&M), they went only 1-3 against the spread. For the tournament so far, favorites still hold a 27-21-4 record against the spread. Three of the four games went under the total, and unders took over the lead in that category at 26-25-1.

Here's a look at Saturday's two regional finals.

UCLA (+2 1/2) vs. Kansas

At San Jose, Calif.

There have been times in recent weeks when Kansas has looked unstoppable, but they've also shown they can be had. Southern Illinois kind of provided the blueprint for stopping the Jayhawks by playing solid defense and slowing down the pace - and that's exactly what I expect UCLA to do in the regional final. (Besides, in my brackets I took UCLA to make the Final Four out of the West instead of Kansas, so you know I had to take the Bruins here.) UCLA was methodical in its 64-55 win over Pittsburgh. It wasn't pretty, but it's a style that should work against Kansas, especially if the Bruins shoot free throws like they did Thursday night when they went 23 of 26 from the line after being around 66 percent for the season. That could be key as the Jayhawks nearly let their game vs. SIU slip away because they made only 10 of 19 from the line. This should be a barnburner, and I'll take the short dog.

PLAY: UCLA for 2 units.

Ohio St. (-2) vs. Memphis

At San Antonio

Ohio St. has had back-to-back scares, vs. Xavier and Tennessee, and the Buckeyes' only point-spread cover in the tournament came in their opening-round 78-57 victory over Central Connecticut St. as a 20-point favorite. But these last two wins have showed me a lot about the heart of this team, especially when it has been able to rally when man-child Greg Oden has been on the bench. Ohio St. is playing like a true team and should make it past Memphis. The fact the Buckeyes faced a run-and-gun team like Tennessee should help them against a similar team in Memphis. I'll lay the short price and expect Ohio St. to put forth a 40-minute effort with so much on the line.

PLAY: Ohio St. for 1 unit.

Thursday results: 2-1, including a 2-unit win on Southern Illinois +8 1/2 vs. Kansas, for a net profit of 1.9 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). NCAA tourney bankroll record: 8-11 for a net loss of 4.2 units, including 1-1 on 2-units plays. Record in all games through Thursday: 27-24-1.