03/19/2007 12:00AM

Favorites start fast in NCAA Tournament


LAS VEGAS – The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament was a roller coaster ride for bettors and bet-takers.

The action started Thursday with a run of favorites that was bordering on the ridiculous. Through the first eight games, favorites went 8-0 both straight up and against the spread. The assembled masses that packed the sports books here, many of them unsophisticated bettors who blindly bet the favorites, were cheering their good fortune and cashing tickets left and right. It wasn't as if the underdogs weren't being competitive in many cases, but in the end the favorites kept pulling away and getting clear of the number.

The run of favorites continued into the evening with three more coming in until Virginia Commonwealth's 79-77 upset of Duke. Favorites won the last four games of the day to go 15-1 straight up on Thursday, though Xavier beat BYU by only 2 points to get a push and North Carolina failed to cover a 28-point spread in an 86-65 win over Eastern Kentucky to make favorites 13-2-1 against the spread on opening day.

Friday was a lot more balanced, but favorites still came out ahead 8-7-1 against the spread.

As opposed to Thursday, with only one outright upset, there were four on Friday, with Winthrop beating Notre Dame, UNLV beating Georgia Tech, Purdue beating Arizona, and Kentucky beating Villanova. But none of the upsets was considered shocking. Winthrop was touted heavily as being better than Notre Dame, UNLV was a No. 7 seed playing a No. 10, and the other two were 8-vs.-9 matchups.

The biggest disappointment for underdog bettors on Friday, and the most exciting game early in the tournament, was Texas A&M Corpus Christi +13 vs. Wisconsin. Texas A&M jumped out to a 10-0 lead and then extended it to 25-7.

The Badgers scratched and clawed their way back in the game and took control in the second half, and appeared to be on the way to actually covering the spread when they took a 14-point lead with 1:20 to play. But then Texas A&M hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 11 and another Wisconsin basket put the margin right on the 13-point spread.

Bettors on both sides were taking an interest in the closing seconds as the coaches cleared their benches. A Wisconsin sub threw up an airball to keep the Badgers from getting clear of the number and a Texas A&M backup threw up a 3-pointer at the buzzer that clanged off the iron to leave the game as a push. I was at the Las Vegas Hilton at that time, and the place went nuts on the last shot as everyone knew the point spread was in the balance, and reports from other books in town said the same.

Saturday was when the dogs barked the loudest, and bookmakers made back most of their money. Favorites went 1-6-1 against the spread with North Carolina being the only favorite to cover in an 81-67 victory as a 9 1/2-point favorite over Michigan St., and even that game was close until late. Five of the other seven games ended up within 2 points of the closing number, with Butler's outright upset of Maryland as a 5 1/2-point underdog and Vanderbilt's upset of Washington St. as a 3-point dog being the only exceptions. The push was Texas A&M -3 vs. Louisville in the Aggies' 72-69 overtime victory. In all, three games went to overtime to add to the excitement.

On Sunday favorites went 4-3-1 against the spread - the push was Tennessee beating Virginia 77-74 as a 3-point favorite - but there were enough upsets, with UNLV knocking off No. 2 Wisconsin and USC beating Texas, to keep bookmakers happy.

Over the four days, favorites ended up going 26-18-4 against the spread, but that means they went only 13-16-3 after Thursday. Ask any sports book director and they'll tell you they much prefer to lose early and win late than to win early and lose late and have people leave town with the house's money.

Over/unders were split pretty evenly with overs holding a slight edge 24-23-1 after going 8-7-1 on Thursday, 7-9 on Friday, 5-3 on Saturday, and 4-4 on Sunday. The push was the Washington St.-Oral Roberts game on Thursday that closed at 124 at most books, though 123 1/2 was widely available for over players and 124 1/2 was available for under players for those who shopped around.

Low seeds lead to low lines

With form pretty much holding and UNLV being the highest seed to advance to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7, the lines came in pretty low for Thursday and Friday's regional semifinals.

Four of the eight games are in the 2-4 point range, with Florida, a 10 1/2-point favorite vs. Butler, being the only double-digit favorite.

Florida still favored to win it all

The Las Vegas Hilton has defending champion Florida at 5-2 to cut down the nets again at the Georgia Dome on April 2. Fellow No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Kansas are the co-second choices at 5-1, followed by Georgetown at 7-1; Ohio St. (the third and final remaining No. 1 seed) and UCLA both at 8-1; Texas A&M at 10-1; Memphis at 15-1; Oregon and Southern Illinois at 25-1; Pittsburgh at 30-1; USC, UNLV and Tennessee all at 40-1; Vanderbilt at 50-1; and Butler at 75-1.

Last call for Orleans tournament

The NCAA tournament resumes on Thursday, as does another competition - the Championship at the Orleans horse handicapping tournament. The entry fee is $500 for the three-day contest, which runs through Saturday. Contestants make 12 mythical $100 win bets each day, with full track odds paid on the first $20 and the remaining $80 capped at 20-1 (or 1,680 points). In addition to returning all entry fees as prize money, the Orleans will kick in $10,000 a day in daily prizes and a $20,000 pot for Sunday's early-bird contest for those who paid their entry fee by Feb. 27. But if you can stand not playing the bonus contest, entries will still be taken Thursday until there are 12 contest races remaining.

The other added bonus of this contest is that the top 50 finishers are guaranteed of earning an entry (worth $1,000) into the Horseplayer World Series in January.