03/27/2006 12:00AM

Florida becomes new favorite

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Many people are calling this year's NCAA tournament the most exciting and unpredictable ever, and you won't get an argument here.

After two weekends of great comebacks, buzzer-beaters, and overtime thrillers, we're left with a Final Four that doesn't include a single No. 1 seed, but I dare say that from watching the games and how they played out, none of this is really shocking. LSU, UCLA, Florida, and George Mason, while all having some flaws, outplayed their competition when it mattered most. Even No. 11 seed George Mason's upset of No. 1 seed UConn - which some people are trying to include with the greatest upsets of all time - wasn't too surprising if you had watched the two teams play during the tournament and tossed out all the media hype pumping up UConn. Mason was just +350 (that's 7-2 for horseplayers) on the money line to pull the outright upset as an 8-point underdog, and there are bigger upsets every Saturday of the regular season.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants has installed Florida as the new favorite at 17-10 (exactly between 8-5 and 9-5) to win it all, with LSU and UCLA both at 2-1 and George Mason at 5-1. That's not to say that Florida is the best team, it's just that the Gators now have the "easier" path since they get to play George Mason first and then the LSU-UCLA winner if they advance, while the LSU-UCLA winner will likely not get to face George Mason and have back-to-back games priced around pick-em.

Of course, George Mason has been beating the odds the whole way. LVSC had the Patriots at 250-1 at the start of the tournament, and that was the most common price in Las Vegas. Some books offered 300-1, and the odds were as high as 400-1 offshore. They were lowered to 50-1 when they reached the Sweet 16.

Anyone who got 300-1 or 400-1 on George Mason is sitting pretty, but it should be noted that they should have just parlayed from game to game. George Mason was +200 (2-1) on the money line vs. Michigan State in the first round, +250 vs. North Carolina in the second round, -140 vs. Wichita State in the round of 16, and +350 vs. UConn. That translates to odds of 80-1 to get to this point, and with the Patriots at +210 in Saturday's semifinal vs. Florida, it would just take them being a +180 (9-5) underdog to the LSU-UCLA winner to make the odds to win it all at 700-1.

As for the pointspreads on the Final Four games, last Saturday night, LVSC made the LSU-UCLA game pick-em, and that's where the Stardust, Las Vegas Hilton, Station Casinos, and MGM Mirage properties opened it. But by the time Sunday morning rolled around, everyone had LSU -1, and the line continued to steam to -1 1/2 at all books. On Monday morning, the Leroy's books were the first in Vegas to move to LSU -2, and that's where it appeared to be headed as of Monday afternoon.

After Sunday's games, LVSC made Florida a 5-point favorite over George Mason, but even though the Stardust and Station Casinos opened it at 4 1/2, money came in on the Gators, and the line rose to 5 1/2 by Monday morning, with the Wynn going to Florida -6. And, yes, it is curious that in a tournament of so many upsets, the public is continuing to bet the favorites.

In fact, it should be noted that the underdogs won all four regional finals straight up, which of course means they covered the spread in all four games. For the tournament, dogs are 33-27-1 against the spread, though it seems more lopsided than that.

Three of the four regional finals went under the total to give the under an even more decisive edge at 37-24 overall.

Championship at the Orleans

Horse racing tournament players get their own taste of March Madness this week with the Championship at the Orleans, which runs from Thursday through Saturday. (Heck, if the NCAA tournament can run into April and still be called March Madness, so can this event.)

Close to 800 players are expected to put up the $500 entry fee. The format calls for contestants to make 12 mythical $100 win bets each day, with full track odds paid off 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 also 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 March 8.

But if you can stand not playing the bonus contest, entries will still be taken Thursday until there are 12 contest races remaining. Contest tracks are expected to be Aqueduct, Laurel, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita on Thursday, with Oaklawn and Hawthorne to be added on Friday and Saturday.

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.

Sports book notes

Las Vegas native Kurt Busch used a nudge to get past Matt Kenseth and win the Ford City 500 Nextel Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday as the 8-1 co-second choice. Kenseth was also 8-1. Busch's brother, Kyle, won the Busch Series race on Saturday at 13-1.

* The Las Vegas Hilton had Stephen Ames as a 75-1 longshot to win the Players Championship at Sawgrass, but that's exactly what he did, blowing away the field by six strokes in the tournament that has been called the fifth major. As for a "real" major, the Hilton has updated its odds on The Masters to be played next weekend, with Tiger Woods the favorite at 11-4, Phil Mickelson at 7-1, Ernie Els at 8-1, Vijay Singh at 10-1, and Retief Goosen, who was second to Ames in the TPC, at 12-1. Ames is 75-1 in the Masters, but it's not clear if he will play, because his wife is recovering from lung cancer and he had already planned a family vacation to his native Trinidad because he didn't know he would qualify.