03/18/2002 12:00AM

Getting down to Sweet 16 a real party

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March Madness in Las Vegas lived up to its advance billing last Thursday through Sunday, as sports books all over town were packed with standing-room-only crowds and wagering was at a record pace. Beer sales, too.

Las Vegas's reputation for being the place to watch and bet all the NCAA tournament games (without being at the mercy of the fractured CBS coverage) brings more and more people every year.

There were very few empty chairs in the sports books that didn't have signs with "taken" scrawled on them.

With 16 games each on Thursday and Friday, the atmosphere was at a fever pitch from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. The majority of bettors took a financial beating those days, but no one seemed to care. It appeared that fun was had by all. In fact, you didn't have to walk too far to hear someone describing a bad beat in excruciating detail while having a smile on his face.

Bettors won back some of their money over the weekend, so everyone was happy: The books made money, and bettors left on a winning note.

The tale of the bettors vs. bookies could be seen in the numbers. During March Madness, the tourist handle is a much higher percentage than at any other time of year (with the possible exception of the Super Bowl), and tourists generally jump on favorites, especially media darlings.

On Thursday, favorites and underdogs covered eight games each, but "public" teams such as Kansas, Gonzaga, and Southern Cal failed to cover and really got bettors off to a bad start, especially with Gonzaga and Southern Cal losing outright. Of the eight dogs that covered Thursday, three won outright.

On Friday, favorites held a 10-6 edge, so the bettors fared a little better, but three more dogs won outright (UCLA, Creighton, and Southern Illinois). Number 1 seeds Maryland and Oklahoma also failed to cover for bettors.

After watching the first-round games and giving more respect to previously unknown teams such as Kent, Tulsa, Wyoming, and NC Wilmington, bettors did okay on Saturday, even though favorites were just 2-4-2. The two pushes (Indiana-NC Wilmington and Arizona-Wyoming) hurt some books, as they got middled.

On Sunday, bettors were back on the favorites, as they were 6-2. Pittsburgh, Maryland, Illinois, Texas, and Oklahoma were all popular with bettors, including parlay players, and they all rolled to the big victories.

Even though there were half as many games on Saturday and Sunday, the excitement factor was just as intense, as more games came down to the wire as far as the point spread was concerned. On Thursday, there was only one game within a three-pointer of the closing line and just four on Friday. On Saturday, four of the eight games came down to the final seconds, while Sunday had three nail-biters.

In all, favorites were 26-20-2 vs. the spread. The over was 8-8 on each of the first two days and 4-3-1 on Saturday and Sunday to hold a slight 24-22-2 edge.

Handicapping help

Last week's early line moves (based on how professional bettors in Las Vegas move the line with their early action) won with Siena in the Tuesday play-in game and then were 5-5 on Thursday and 5-1 on Friday. Overall, they were 11-6 (65 percent), though it should be noted that two of the wins by the wiseguys would have been losses if you had followed the money after the line moved.

This week, three of the early line moves are on dogs. In Thursday's action, Indiana was bet down from +12 1/ 2 to +12 vs. Duke and UCLA was bet from -1 1/ 2 to -2 vs. Missouri. On Friday, Kentucky was bet down from +7 to +6 1/ 2 vs. Maryland and Illinois was bet down from +5 1/ 2 to +5 vs. Kansas.

* My picks over the first weekend were 7-7-1. I started slowly with a 1-3 record on Thursday, followed by 2-2 on Friday, 2-1 on Saturday and 2-1-1 on Sunday.

* If you're looking for the hottest handicappers, you can get free selections at sportswireonline.com. The site lists picks from 50 handicappers in "The Vegas Sportswire 5-0 Hoops Invitational." Through Sunday, Joe Gavazzi of Private Players of Pittsburgh was in first place with a record of 21-8 (+12.2 units) for a winning percentage of 72 percent. Each handicapper makes 50 selections in 50 days leading up to April 15. There are 28 with winning records, five at .500 and 17 with losing records. As a whole, the group is 621-542-33 (+24.8 units).

Race & sports book notes

The big handle on college basketball didn't translate into a big Nevada handle in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. According to John Asher, vice president for communications of Churchill Downs, Nevada wagered $19,293 over the weekend, compared with $22,200 in last year's Pool 2, which was held the weekend before the NCAA tournament.

But the presence of basketball isn't the only reason for the downward trend. California is part of the Future Wager for the first time this year, so some of the Nevada money has gone (or, more accurately, stayed) there, plus bettors here are able to compare the Future Wager parimutuel odds to the fixed odds in the race books.

Woods, Martin win over weekend

Tiger Woods "finally" won a tournament for the first time this year over the weekend at Bay Hill. Woods was the 11-4 favorite at The Palms.

"We had his odds a little lower than he's been lately because he made a strong run the week before," said Jeff Sherman, who as sports supervisor at The Palms sets the golf odds.

"He looks like he's on pace for his annual run at The Masters." Woods is the 5-2 favorite (bet down from 3-1) in the April 11-14 Masters.

Sterling Marlin won the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington, S.C., despite starting as the last car in the field. Marlin closed at 6-1 at Station Casinos after opening at 7-1, but the real move has been on Marlin's odds to win the Winston Cup points title.

He opened the year at 6-1 but is now the 2-1 co-favorite along with defending champion Jeff Gordon.

"He's been the most consistent," Palace Station race and sports book manager Micah Roberts said of Marlin, "but there's still a lot of racing to go." Sunday's race was the fifth of the 36-race Winston Cup season.