03/23/2005 1:00AM

Duke ready to settle down


Thursday's was to include two games with No. 1 seeds (Illinois and Washington in their respective regionals), and one with a No. 2 (Oklahoma State), plus another game of Cinderella stories (Texas Tech-West Virginia).

Friday's card is very similar, with two No. 1's (Duke and North Carolina in separate regions) and one game with a No. 2 (Kentucky) and another matchup of Cinderellas (Wisconsin-North Carolina State). How's that for symmetry?

That's nice, but it's also the definition of trivial information. I will try to dig a little deeper to find some more winners as the NCAA field gets whittled down to the Elite Eight. All times are Eastern.

(7:10 p.m. at Austin, Texas)

I'm not usually crazy (as in a Cameron Crazy) about laying this many points with any team, but in this case I believe I'm getting value, even though Duke has been a shaky favorite so far in the tournament vs. Delaware State and Mississippi State. Part of the Blue Devils' struggles can be attributed to the fact the players wanted to make sure they got coach Mike Krzyzewski his 66th career tournament victory to break Dean Smith's record. Now that pressure is off.

Michigan State is definitely stepping up in class here after victories over Old Dominion and Vermont, and Duke poses matchup problems up and down the line. J.J. Redick, the ACC player of the year, has hit just 25 percent of his shots in the tourney (6 of 24) but he is Mr. Clutch, and he's joined in the backcourt by senior Daniel Ewing and Sean Dockery, who has made Duke deeper since his return from a knee injury. Shelden Williams is so much of a force in the paint on both ends of the floor that he should change his first name to Sherwin.

Duke's one weakness might be its lack of depth, or Krzyzewski's reluctance to use his bench. That might be the Blue Devils' Achilles' heel down the road, but that shouldn't come into play in this game.

PLAY: Duke for 1 unit.

(9:55 p.m. at Syracuse, N.Y.)

First off, North Carolina has looked dominant in its first two victories and is very worthy of being favored in every game it plays. That being said, I can't pass up this many points with a scrappy Villanova team that plays as a unit and could pose problems for a North Carolina team that still often plays as a bunch of individuals.

The Wildcats won their first two games despite not shooting particularly well, and if Randy Foye (10 for 29 last week) and Allan Ray (an even worse 1 for 18) can regain their shooting touch, they can be dangerous. Villanova will be hurt by the loss of Curtis Sumpter to a knee injury, but senior Jason Fraser stepped in and scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Florida and can hold his own. Plus, the Wildcats have played in the Carrier Dome as part of the Big East, so they should be comfortable with the surroundings.

This line was at 9 earlier in the week but money has slowly been driving the line higher and I'm glad to take double digits. Every NCAA champion - and North Carolina was my chalk-eating pick in my bracket - seems to have one game in which they have to stare defeat straight in the face and survive. The Tar Heels could have tougher games down the line vs. Duke in the semifinals or potentially Illinois, Oklahoma State or Washington in the title game, but this looms as a dangerous spot for them if they get overconfident with their success so far.

PLAY: Villanova for 1 unit.

The rest of Friday's games

: This line was available at +3 earlier in the week and I was tempted to take it, but I couldn't pull the trigger mainly because I like this North Carolina State team, especially Julius Hodge. Then, the more I thought about it, I liked the idea of laying the short price with the Wolfpack. But I didn't feel comfortable laying any points in a game that could very well come down to the final seconds and a last shot. So, as any experienced handicapper will tell you, if you find yourself wavering on a game like this, that should tell you the line is pretty solid and you have to pass.

: Utah, the Mountain West Conference regular-season champs, is one of the feel-good stories of the tournament and is led by 7-footer Andrew Bogut. He can carry the team on his wide shoulders. But the Utes just don't match up athletically with the Wildcats as a whole. I just don't feel as confident about laying this line as I did in the Duke-Michigan State game.

Last week's bankroll plays: 11-7-1 (61 percent) for a net profit of 3.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Selections on all tournament games through Sunday: 26-21-2 (55 percent).