03/15/2007 11:00PM

Here come the underdogs


LAS VEGAS - Thursday was a pretty wild opening day in the NCAA tournament - not because of a bunch of upsets like we're used to seeing during March Madness but because of a lack of them.

No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth's 79-77 victory over No. 6 seed Duke was the lone upset of the 16 opening-round games played Thursday. Xavier and Michigan St., both No. 9 seeds, defeated No. 8s BYU and Marquette, respectively, but oddsmakers had installed both winners as favorites. Overall, favorites went 13-2-1 against the spread. In totals wagering, the over went 8-7. The remaining game was Washington St.'s 70-54 victory over Oral Roberts. For those who were able to shop around amidst the crowds and long times here in Vegas, there was a total of 123 1/2 available on that game for the over bettors and 124 1/2 available for under betters, but there were also 124s so I'll just grade it a push.

As an underdog player, I was fortunate to escape with a 2-3 record on my bankroll plays. I wish I had used more of my leans as official plays as my selections on all games went 12-4, but that's mostly because I leaned toward the favorites in those non-bankroll plays.

With so many lower seeds advancing, it sets up a competitive day of action on Saturday. In fact, there is only one game with a double-digit spread.

Here's a look at three of Saturday's eight second-round games, listed in betting rotation order:

Virginia Commonwealth (+7) vs. Pitt

At Buffalo, N.Y.

VCU is the only real Cinderella to advance from Thursday's action, and the Rams have a chance to keep midnight from striking, at least for this weekend. And this is probably not the first time you've heard that VCU is from the same conference as last year's surprise team, George Mason, and is a No. 11 seed just like George Mason was last year. If VCU's guards can press like they did against Duke, they could take Pittsburgh off its game and limit the effectiveness of Aaron Gray. And although the Rams will again be at a size disadvantage, they showed against Duke that they'll stand up in a fight as there was more blood shed in that game than in a UFC fight. And, yes, I know I lost with my pick of Wright St. vs. Pitt on Thursday, but that was quickly a rout and I'm still thinking the Panthers' 66.6 percent free-throw shooting percentage is going to come back to haunt them at some point.

PLAY: Virginia Commonwealth for 1 unit.

Michigan St. (+10 1/2) vs. North Carolina

At Winston-Salem, N.C.

North Carolina has the talent edge in most games it plays, and that's certainly true here, but Michigan St. counters with the No. 4 scoring defense in the country. That was certainly on display in the Spartans' 61-49 victory over Marquette. Michigan St. will certainly be up against it, with North Carolina fans certain to buy up a lot of the tickets (especially from the fans of teams that lost Thursday), but the Spartans' slow, methodical style can also keep the crowd out of it. The key will be if Michigan State's Drew Neitzel can shoot the lights out after his subpar performance (4 for 11 from the field for just 12 points after averaging 18.1 this season).

PLAY: Michigan St. for 1 unit.

Louisville (+2) vs. Texas A&M

At Lexington, Ky.

Louisville certainly looked at home on the Rupp Arena floor Thursday in its 78-58 blowout of Stanford on Thursday, and it wasn't even that close, as the Cardinals jumped out to a 12-2 lead on the way to a 46-20 halftime advantage in front of a partisan crowd. Texas A&M also came out fast, leading Penn 31-13 at the half, but was caught at 37-37 before pulling away from the Ivy Leaguers. The home-state edge should come up huge Saturday as this young Louisville team is peaking at the right time for coach Rick Pitino. And the Cardinals have done it vs. quality competition, going 10-3 against the spread vs. teams with winning records over the second half of the season.

PLAY: Louisville for 1 unit.

Thursday's NCAA bankroll record: 2-3 for a net loss of 1.3 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Overall tournament record: 12-4.

Here are my leans, which went 10-1 Thursday, again listed in rotation order:

* Butler +5 1/2 vs. Maryland

* Georgetown -8 vs. Boston College

* Xavier +7 1/2 vs. Ohio St.

* Washington St. -2 vs. Vanderbilt

* UCLA -8 vs. Indiana