03/15/2010 11:00PM

Lines indicate lots of tight games


LAS VEGAS - The NCAA tournament field hadn't even been fully announced Sunday and the discussions about point spreads had already begun.

And I'm not just talking about the oddsmakers at Las Vegas Sports Consultants helping to set the opening numbers, or even the wise guys in Nevada's sports books.

It was right there on CBS's NCAA tournament selection show. Analyst Greg Anthony made a comment about the line for the first-round game matching No. 13 Siena vs. No. 4 Purdue.

"Could we possibly have a scenario where a 13 seed is actually favored over a 4 seed in the absence of Robbie Hummel [for Purdue]?" asked Anthony, a Vegas native and star on UNLV's 1990 championship team, who was just giving the view from his hometown.

As it turned out, the answer was "no." Oddsmakers opened Purdue as a 4-point favorite.

Such references on its sanctioned broadcast probably doesn't thrill the NCAA, but it just acknowledges the elephant that everyone knows is in the room: March Madness is all about the betting, whether it's the legal (or illegal) betting on the point spreads and totals of individual games or the ubiquitous contests in offices throughout this country and extending into cyberspace.

The spread on that game is lower than normal for a 4-13 matchup. This is part of an overall trend we're seeing where oddsmakers aren't letting underdog bettors get as many points as they did in the past.

In fact, a full quarter of the games on Thursday and Friday opened with line of under a basket, between pick-em and 1 1/2 - and four of those are games where you could have found both sides favored at different sports books in early wagering Sunday night. That's the most in the 12 years I've been in Vegas. While you would expect that from the 8-9 matchups (where the UNLV-Northern Iowa, Gonzaga-Florida State, and California-Louisville games fit the bill) and even some 7-10 matchups (chalk up Oklahoma State-Georgia Tech, Clemson-Missouri, and Richmond-St. Mary's), it's not typical to have two 6-11 games right around pick-em: Xavier-Minnesota and Marquette-Washington. In maybe the biggest surprise of all, No. 11 seed Minnesota had been bet to a 1-point favorite over No. 6 Xavier as of noon Monday.

Of course, the top seeds have big spreads to cover, but those also appear shaded downward. Kansas has the biggest spread at -27 vs. Lehigh, which is in line with what we except to see. However, Kentucky opened -23 1/2 vs. Eastern Tennessee St. at the M Resort on the south end of Las Vegas, and it got bet all the way down to 20 1/2 on Sunday night as one of the few examples of a soft line that the wise guys were able to jump on. Syracuse is only -17 1/2 vs. Vermont after opening at 19; maybe because people remember the Catamounts upsetting the Orange in their last meeting. The Duke line wasn't up as of deadline as they await their opponent from Tuesday night's play-in game between Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

The 2-15 and 3-14 games offer few surprises, with New Mexico -9 vs. Montana being the only game in those groups with a line in the single digits, though it opened at 10 before being bet down.

We hear every year about the success of the underdogs in the 5-12 games, so it's not surprising that Butler and Texas A&M are only around 2 1/2-point favorites in their respective games vs. UTEP and Utah St. The Butler game actually opened at 5 1/2 at the M before being bet as low as 2 before rising back up again.

Kansas is the chalk

Speaking of chalk, it was interesting to hear ESPN analyst Digger Phelps say "don't bet the chalk" a couple of times on that network. The term for a favorite isn't heard much in the sports world, and it's good to hear it getting more widespread use.

Anyway, Kansas was the No. 1 overall seed of the committee and the Jayhawks are also the favorite in the updated NCAA future-book odds that the Las Vegas Hilton posted Sunday night. Kansas is 5-2 to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, followed by fellow No. 1 seeds Kentucky (7-2), Syracuse and Duke (both 8-1). Then come the No. 2 seeds with West Virginia (10-1), Ohio State and Kansas State (both 15-1), and Villanova (20-1). No. 3 seed Georgetown is 25-1, but it's interesting to note that Michigan State, a No. 5 seed, is also 30-1 along with No. 3 Baylor. No. 4 seeds Wisconsin and Maryland are both 40-1. But, wait, what happened to No. 3 Pittsburgh and New Mexico? They're both 60-1, along with Purdue and Tennessee, a No. 6 seed. The Hilton lists 49 teams and then a field (which includes 15 teams) at 100-1.

First-round thoughts

Here are my early leans for the opening-round games: San Diego State +3 1/2 vs. Tennessee, Old Dominion +2 vs. Notre Dame, Northern Iowa +1 1/2 vs. UNLV, Florida +4 vs. BYU, Louisville +1 vs. California, New Mexico State +12 1/2 vs. Michigan State, UTEP + 2 1/2 vs. Butler, and Siena +4 vs. Purdue.