03/19/2003 1:00AM

Learn Thursday, adjust Friday

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LAS VEGAS - Part of handicapping horse racing is seeing how horses fare when facing different competition. If a horse you like lost its last outing to a horse that went on to win - "flattering" your horse - you can feel better about your chances.

College basketball is the same way. For the past two months the top teams played mainly within their conference, so a lot was to be learned Thursday as teams moved up and down in class depending on their seeds. Often in the NCAA tournament, we see teams from the top conferences go on a run.

Filing these selections Wednesday, I didn't have the luxury of factoring in Thursday's games, so take these picks with a grain of salt and season to your taste after viewing Thursday's menu. After going with six underdogs Thursday, I'm looking for form to hold a little better on Friday's card and have landed on four favorites (plus a pick-em contest).

Indiana (PK) vs. Alabama

Both these teams failed to live up to preseason expectations - Alabama was ranked No. 1 early in the year, and Indiana hasn't resembled the team that made it to the title game last year - and both were in danger of having their bubbles burst. Of the two, Indiana has been playing better basketball of late, winning five of their last eight games (two of the losses were to Illinois, including a 73-72 heartbreaker in the Big 10 semifinals). Alabama lost three of their last five games, including a loss to Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC tournament. Indiana matches up well in the backcourt with senior leader Tom Coverdale and freshman Bracey Wright, and if Jeff Newton and George Leach can help neutralize Alabama's Erwin Dudley in the paint, the Hoosiers will run away with the game.

PLAY: Indiana for 1 unit.

Oklahoma St. (-3) vs. Penn

At tourney time, it's usually a popular play to take the points with a smart and disciplined team such as Penn. That's where the early money has gone, but in this case, everything points to the favorite. Oklahoma St. didn't turn out as strong as their 17-1 start indicated, but they hung tough in the very deep Big 12, while Penn didn't face anywhere near the competition in the Ivy League. Penn's only two games against tourney teams were an 80-57 loss at Colorado and a 66-48 loss vs. St. Joseph's. OSU's defense - especially that of guards Victor Williams and Tony Scott - will be too much for Penn.

PLAY: Oklahoma St. for 1 unit.

St. Joseph's (-3) vs. Auburn

Auburn shouldn't even be in the tournament, having played a soft non-conference schedule and finishing 5-9 down the stretch. Instead of the No. 64 vs. No. 65 play-in game on Tuesdays, maybe they should expand the field to 68 and have four play-in games. It would have been great to see Auburn have to face Seton Hall or Boston College with a berth on the line. Instead, we'll probably see St. Joseph's, which went 18-9 against the spread during the regular season, run them off the floor with Jameer Nelson (39 points vs. Dayton in the Atlantic 10 tourney, and a great assist man) the difference.

PLAY: St. Joseph's for 1 unit.

Kentucky (-27) vs. IUPUI

This is the largest pointspread in the first round, but I'm going to lay the points with the Wildcats. They're the best team in the tournament, and are 14-3-1 against the spread in their last 18 games, which is amazing since they were often laying double-digit points against some decent SEC competition. In this game, they have a significant talent edge at every position on the floor. Kentucky has long had a reputation for running up the score against first-round opponents, and with a ton of Wildcats fans making the drive from Lexington, Ky., to Nashville, Tenn., the emotion and atmosphere of this game could be similar to when Kentucky routed Vanderbilt 106-44 on Senior Night.

PLAY: Kentucky for 1 unit.

Oregon (-4) vs. Utah

These are two teams heading in opposite directions. After seemingly running away with the Mountain West Conference, Utah was caught by BYU and had to share the regular-season title, then they barely beat Air Force in their conference tournament opener before being routed by UNLV 64-41. The Utes really miss the inside presence of Britton Johnsen, who will also miss this game with mononucleosis. Oregon, on the other hand, is fresh off a Pac-10 tournament title and has won and covered five of its last seven games and seven of its last 10. I'll stick with the hot hand, and a pair of cool hand Lukes: Oregon's Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit.