03/25/2003 12:00AM

Don't sweat giving points with UK


Thursday night is usually dominated by NBC's "must-see TV" lineup, but the peacock network has to swallow its pride and schedule reruns this week, because it knows people will be glued to their sets watching the four regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament on CBS.

Kentucky (-12) vs. Wisconsin

Kentucky continues to show why it is the No. 1 team in the nation and the favorite to win it all. Last Thursday, they beat IUPUI 95-64 as a 25 1/2-point favorite and then defeated Utah 74-54 as a 15-point favorite. No pointspread is too high for the Wildcats to cover the way they are playing right now. And the sign of a good team is that it can excel on the road. UK is 12-3 against the spread away from home this year, covering its last nine straight.

Kentucky's backcourt will dictate the pace with its pressure defense and could run the Badgers out of the gym with guard Keith Bogans leading the way. When the Wildcats work the ball inside, Wisconsin's undersized front line won't be able to stop Marquis Estill and Co. Overall, Wisconsin doesn't have the talent or the depth to keep up with the Cats.

History is on UK's side, too. According to handicapper Marc Lawrence, favorites of 9 points or more in the round of 16 are 21-11 (65.6 percent) against the spread.

PLAY: Kentucky for 1 unit.

Marquette (+5) vs. Pittsburgh

Besides Kentucky, Pittsburgh is the only team with two wins by 20 points or more, but they will have a much harder time with a fundamentally sound Marquette team. Both these teams play defense, and this game is the most likely of the night to come down to a final shot. With that in mind, I actually like the fact that the Golden Eagles of Marquette are coming out of two hard-fought victories over Holy Cross and Missouri.

Marquette's Dwayne Wade hasn't played up to his potential going back to a Conference USA tourney loss to UAB, but his backcourt mate, Travis Diener, has picked up the slack. Wade and Diener can outscore Pittsburgh guards Bradin Knight (who is more of a playmaker anyway) and Julius Page, so the key will come down to how the Golden Eagles' big men handle Ontario Lett. Just like on the offensive end, Marquette has jelled as a team and should contain him enough to keep them in the game.

PLAY: Marquette for 1 unit.

Arizona (-8) vs. Notre Dame

Arizona's double-overtime win over Gonzaga last Saturday night was classic.

Unless Notre Dame makes 11 three-pointers, as it did in the first half of its upset win over Illinois, this contest is not likely to be close at all. And even if the Irish are red-hot, they probably won't have enough to keep within single digits of the Wildcats over the course of 40 minutes.

Arizona can dominate either inside (Luke Walton and Channing Frye) or outside (Jason Gardner and Salim Stoudamire). The Wildcats' depth also means that you don't have to worry much about them giving up a backdoor cover if coach Lute Olson clears the bench.

Notre Dame has had a good season, but just like its football team, which started out great and faded against better competition down the stretch, its luck runs out here.

PLAY: Arizona for 1 unit.

Duke (+3) vs. Kansas

After a mediocre season by Duke's standards, the Blue Devils are playing as well as anyone, winning the ACC tournament and rolling over Colorado St. and Central Michigan. Their defense, nonexistent at times this year, has stepped up recently. There's no question about Duke's ability to score.

Dahntay Jones racked up 28 points in the win over Central Michigan, but his defense is even more impressive. He will get a chance to try to contain Kansas's Keith Langford. Any toll that guarding Langford takes out of Jones can be more than made up by guards J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing, both of whom can light up the scoreboard.

Kansas seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison also pose problems for Duke, but Duke answers with Chris Duhon and Shelden Williams, who will also get help from reserves Casey Sanders and Nick Horvath. Duke's depth allows coach Mike Krzyzewski more flexibility with his lineup, and that could be the key.

Both teams have great tradition, but Duke has the edge there, too, having beaten Kansas the last four times they have met in the NCAA tournament and 6-1 overall. These are obviously different players, but Krzyzewski should continue his dominance over Kansas's Roy Williams.

PLAY: Duke for 1 unit.

Tournament record: 9-3, for a net profit of 5.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).