Updated on 09/17/2011 9:59PM

In first round, take points often


LAS VEGAS - Not sure how many people caught it, but college basketball analyst Steve Lavin gave the Daily Racing Form a nice plug at 7 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday.

Just as the selection show was wrapping up on CBS, Lavin was asked for his Final Four picks on ESPN. Obviously put on the spot, Lavin said, "I'm not that clairvoyant. I don't have that crystal ball, so I'm going to have to look at this thing like a Racing Form, take my time and get my spectacles on and fine-tune it."

I often look at sports betting with a horseplayers' eye and vice versa, so it was refreshing to see someone at the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports making a similar statement.

I'm the first to admit that I don't start following college basketball seriously until after the Super Bowl, but handicapping any sport is just like riding a bike. Once you know how, you never forget, though it does take time to get back up to speed. And even though March Madness is the time when the public gets involved more than the professional bettors, I've always found there are always soft lines to be found in the NCAA tournaments, especially because of the influx of that money from the squares as they jump from bandwagon to bandwagon of the media darlings.

After going 15-8 (65 percent) against the spread two years ago in this space for a net profit of 6.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1), I went 19-11 (63 percent) last year for a profit of 7.9 units with plays in the print editions as well as on the internet at www.drf.com. However, with a nearly 50-week gap since my last published college basketball selection, I won't be surprised to hear the refrain of "What have you done for me lately?"

When filling out my , I mostly landed on favorites as the most-likely winners (29 of the 32 first-round games), but as we say in horse racing, "that's not the way to bet." I'm more likely to be taking the points with teams I think can stick close and at least cover the spread.

As for Thursday's six bankroll plays, they're split with three favorites and three dogs. So, here they are in the order that they are scheduled to tip-off (all times Eastern).

2:45 p.m. at Cleveland, Ohio

Boston College started out 20-0 but has come back to Earth, going 4-4 down the stretch. BC, even during its run, didn't always blow out opponents, winning nine games by six points or less. That's all we need Penn to stay within, and this isn't likely to be a shootout. Oddsmakers have put a total of 127 points on this game, so points will be at a premium. Boston College has struggled vs. zone defenses and you can expect the Ivy Leaguers will be playing smart.

PLAY: Penn for 1 unit.

7:20 p.m. at Boise, Idaho

This was a borderline call and the sixth game I made a bankroll play. I usually don't like laying points, especially in the first round, but this line just seems short. It's not that I'm discounting Utah St.'s chances, but Arizona is strong. Utah St. usually hits a high percentage of its shots, but that could change with Arizona's Channing Frye patrolling the paint. And I don't see anyone on Utah St. slowing down Salim Stoudamire.

PLAY: Arizona for 1 unit.

7:25 p.m. at Tuscon, Ariz.

Gonzaga used to be everyone's favorite Cinderella, and now the Zags are the team the public loves to bet. The shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. That makes value on the underdog side. Winthrop starts three sophomores and a freshman, but they've grown up a lot during an 18-game winning streak. Though they should win the game, 13 points could be a lot to cover for a Gonzaga team that isn't as good as past editions.

PLAY: Winthrop for 1 unit.

9:30 p.m. at Cleveland, Ohio

Both these teams got hot at the right time. West Virginia pulled upsets over Boston College and Villanova in the Big East Conference tourney, but how will they fare as a favorite? (Note: the Mountaineers were 5-10 as favorites this year, including 0-2 on the road.) Creighton is a similar team as both fire up 3-pointers, but Creighton hits 41 percent compared to 35 percent for West Virginia. The edge in postseason experience also goes to Creighton, so they're my top upset pick on Thursday.

PLAY: Creighton for 1 unit.

9:30 p.m. at Indianapolis

Now here's the most points I'm taking, though I certainly don't expect Fairleigh Dickinson to become to first No. 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1. FDU will be firing away early and often from 3-point land, while Illinois will likely slow things down so they don't wear themselves down since they have to play again Saturday. Illinois should be in control throughout, but I just think the Illini will be content with a victory in the mid-to-upper teens - and so will yours truly.

PLAY: Fairleigh Dickinson for 1 unit.

9:40 p.m. at Boise, Idaho

This is my second favorite, and it's also in Boise. UAB was a great story last year and I suspect that's why this line is a little short. But LSU certainly won't be taking this one for granted and should have success pushing the ball inside against a soft UAB defense. LSU had won seven in a row before a 1-point loss to Kentucky, and the Tigers have covered their last 10 games. It just looks like a gift laying this few points with the better team from the better conference.

PLAY: LSU for 1 unit.

The rest of Thursday's games

These are the way I'm leaning on the rest of the games of Thursday's card, but just can't pull the trigger for one reason or another (though I may as gametime approaches if the line moves in my favor):

: UK usually rolls in first round, but too many points to lay and they might take it easy on a state school, which is coached by a former Wildcat, Travis Ford.

: The Crimson Tide doesn't have a deep bench and could have a problem keeping up with a pressing, fast-breaking, 3-point shooting UW-Milwaukee squad.

: I was hoping to catch points with Pitt in the first round, but oddsmakers caught on and made them the favorite despite being a No. 9 seed. I'll pass.

: The Sooners have a tendency to grind out wins, but was hoping the line would be higher to take the dog.

: Both teams run hot and cold and can't be backed with much confidence.

: Not enough points to take with Montana; too many to lay with Washington.

: Andrew Bogut is the real deal and should be the difference, but UTEP is a live dog.

: Chattanooga fits the definition of a scrappy team, but Wake should prove too tough and the final margin should fall right around the number.

: This is a toss-up of an 8-9 game. I give a slight edge to Texas because of a more-balanced offense.

: Laying the small number is tempting, but UCLA's athleticism is scary.