03/19/2002 1:00AM

'Home court' theory proved out


The biggest story coming out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament was the effect of teams playing close to home. Newspaper columnists from coast to coast have examined this subject and call-in radio shows have made it a hot topic.

The consensus is that it was fine for No. 1 seeds Duke, Maryland and Kansas as well as No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Pittsburgh to have a home-court advantage, because they had earned it, but that lower seeds such as No. 4 Illinois, No. 6 Texas, and No. 11 Southern Illinois were given an unfair advantage over higher seeds by playing close to home. All of those teams won their first two tournament games.

(Although I predicted this trend of "home" court advantage last Thursday, I wasn't able to capitalize on the prediction with my picks. I was 7-7-1 over the first weekend.)

Of the 13 teams that played in their home state or one state over, nine won both their games and advanced to the Sweet 16. Southern Cal and Pennsylvania were the only teams to lose in their home states.

"Home" teams were 14-9 against the spread (61 percent) with one push. The teams that played in their actual home state (Pitt, Penn, Illinois, Southern Illinois, Southern Cal, Texas) went 8-2, both straight up and against the spread.

There will be fewer cases of teams playing close to home in this next round, but advantages can still be found.

Indiana (+12 1/2) vs. Duke

Duke is the class of the field, but it has shown throughout the year that it is not always a good bet. The Blue Devils (31-3) are only 17-16 against the spread, including a spread loss vs. Notre Dame last Saturday. Indiana's Jared Jeffries can cause problems for Duke and let the Hoosiers stick around. If the Blue Devils get up by double-digits late, their free-throw shooting woes can help get Indiana back in the game. In addition, this game is being played in Lexington, Ky., a three-hour drive from the Bloomington, Ind., campus. As has been seen in the past, including last weekend, crowds get behind the underdog at so-called neutral sites. That will be the case here, especially if No. 1 Duke is in trouble, plus Pitt and Kent fans will certainly be cheering for Indiana to knock off Duke.

Oklahoma (-3) vs. Arizona

Arizona has been a pleasant surprise this year with a young cast that has matured before our eyes, but the Wildcats' great run ends here. Oklahoma should have been a No. 1 seed over Cincinnati in the West Regional, and the Sooners have been on a mission to prove it. Oklahoma's players have also come of age and improved as the season progressed, winning the Big 12 title, which is impressive because four of the Sweet 16 teams are from that conference. The Sooners will roll here and into the Final Four regardless of who they play in the regional final on Saturday.

Pittsburgh (pick 'em) vs. Kent St.

Both teams have been very good to me at the betting windows this postseason. I've been on Kent in both its wins, but I have to side with Pittsburgh here. The Panthers have impressed me with the way they've played defense and crashed the boards. That should limit Kent's second-chance opportunities. Brandin Knight is the star, but Pitt will also be able to get the ball inside and possibly get Kent's players in foul trouble.

UCLA (-1 1/2) vs. Missouri

Both these teams didn't live up to expectations during the regular season, but they're playing their best basketball now. Missouri was impressive upsetting Ohio St. on Saturday, but UCLA's double-overtime win over Cincinnati was one of the highlights of the opening weekend. UCLA, and its fans, know the way to San Jose - where the game will be played - so the Bruins should have a decided home-court advantage, plus knocking off Cincy was a huge confidence boost.