03/16/2004 12:00AM

March Madness: AZ, NC among Thursday's best bets


LAS VEGAS - Parity in college basketball has been discussed a lot lately, including in this space, but it should also be pointed out that there is parity among college basketball bettors - and that is having just as much of an impact on the point spread.

Let me explain. In the past, it could be assumed that the public would back the favorites in the NCAA tournament regardless of the spread, assuming that the better teams would win, but today's sports bettor is much more educated. There is wall-to-wall TV coverage of college basketball (a one-hour selection show on CBS and a three-hour analysis show on ESPN) and unlimited access to information on the internet. The squares are not as square as they used to be.

While everyone used to would assume that the No. 5 seeds would roll over the No. 12 seeds, but everyone now knows that at least one No. 5 seed has been upset in all but three years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and almost as many know that No. 12 seeds are 8-4 against the spread over the past three years.

So, now everyone is filling out their brackets with a few No. 12 seeds pulling upsets and also looking to take the points when placing their bets. Oddsmaker aren't dumb, and they've shaded the spreads lower on those games (this year, the No. 5s are favored by an average of only 6 points).

The public is also looking for more upsets in other matchups and that has driven down the prices on other favorites, too. So, if you really think about it, we could be starting to see a case where there is actually more value now on the favorites because of this overadjustment in the market. I'm usually an underdog player, but I'm seeing fewer and fewer playable ones, and I have to attribute that to the tighter lines.

Hopefully I'm ahead of the curve on this one. In Thursday's first-round action, I'm on four favorites and only two dogs with my best bets. Games are listed in chronological order. All times are Eastern.

12:20 p.m. at Raleigh, N.C.

Here's one of those No. 12 vs. No. 5 upsets that everyone seems to be picking. But I'm going with it anyway because I think there's still value in the line. Last year, Manhattan gave eventual champion Syracuse all it could handle in the first round before falling. I expect a similar effort this week. Luis Flores has been carrying the Jaspers on his back all season and this is chance at the national spotlight. Florida has the athletic edge and more depth, but Manhattan has a methodical style that should slow down the pace and lead to a tight game with Manhattan having a better-than-average chance at the outright upset.

PLAY: Manhattan for 1 unit.

12:25 p.m. at Buffalo, N.Y.

This game should be a good early test to see how Conference USA stacks up against the so-called power conferences. The feeling here is that the Big 12-tested Texas Tech squad will be too much for Charlotte. Tech's Andre Emmett could be one of the offensive stars of the tournament and he should shine here as it doesn't appear the 49ers will have an answer for him. The only concern is if Charlotte gets hot from 3-point range, but Tech's backcourt matches up pretty well in its man-to-man defense and should help limit the 49ers from getting a lot of open shots.

PLAY: Texas Tech for 1 unit.

2:40 p.m. at Seattle, Wash.

Alabama played the nation's toughest schedule. Basically, if these two teams switched place, Alabama would have had a record rivaling SIU's 25-4 and the Salukis would have been lucky to be above .500. The Tide is a good shooting team and Antoine Pettway should help control the game from the point. In addition, the Salukis don't have the 3-point shooters to make a comeback if they fall behind a quality team, which they should do here.

PLAY: Alabama for 1 unit.

7:35 p.m. at Seattle, Wash.

I'm not as down on the Big 10 as a lot of people, but I do think Michigan St. is seeded too high at No. 7. They were 12-4 during the Big 10 conference schedule (nothing to brag about) but only 6-6 against non-conference foes, including a loss to a Kansas team that Nevada beat. Nevada's Kirk Snyder is among the best players you've probably never heard of and he should put on a show with his all-around game (averaging 18.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game). Michigan St. doesn't take care of the ball (15 turnovers a game) and looks ripe for an early exit against a well-disciplined team.

PLAY: Nevada for 1 unit.

9:40 p.m. at Raleigh, N.C.

Arizona has had a disappointing season by its own lofty standards, with some people suggesting they shouldn't even be in the field. But just the fact that so many people are excited about a second-round matchup with Duke shows that the Wildcats have a formidable team. They lost three times to Washington and twice to Stanford, and there's really no shame in either as those teams matched up well with Arizona. The same isn't true of Seton Hall, which will have a hard time keeping up with the running Wildcats. Arizona's Channing Frye should dominate the paint against a Seton Hall frontcourt that doesn't have a true center and free up Salim Stoudamire & Co to move the ball in transition. The pressure is off Arizona, which is usually saddled with a higher seed, and they should roll here.

PLAY: Arizona for 1 unit.

9:50 p.m. at Denver, Colo.

The only reason the Tar Heels are seeded as low as No. 6 is because they have 10 losses thanks to going 8-8 against a brutal ACC schedule (someone has to lose those games). Otherwise, this team is the equivalent of a No. 3 or 4 seed. As such, I think this line is relatively short against an Air Force team that appears overmatched. The Falcons will need to be ultra-efficient in their Princeton-like offense because they're not going to get many second shots against the North Carolina frontline. And who is going to stop Rashad McCants? That's a rhetorical question to which the rhetorical answer is "nobody," or at least no one on Air Force.

PLAY: North Carolina for 1 unit.

The rest of Thursday's games

These are the way I'm leaning on the rest of the games of Thursday's card, but just can't pull the trigger for one reason or another:

Liberty (+23) vs. St. Joseph's: Consider me one of the Doubting Thomases about St. Joseph's, but I prefer to wait to go against the Hawks with a team with a stronger frontcourt that can expose their weakness on the boards.

Dayton (+3) vs. DePaul: This is basically a pick-em game, especially with DePaul's LaVar Seals suspended, so I'm more inclined to take the points.

Vermont (+20) vs. UConn: This is one of those games that looks tempting to take the big points, but I don't want to just be counting on UConn resting its stars down the stretch and giving Vermont a shot at the backdoor cover.

Duke (-34) vs. Alabama St.: Duke has covered its last two times in the first round as a No. 1 seed, but I still can't lay this many points, even against the worst team in the tourney.

Va. Commonwealth (+13 1/2) vs. Wake Forest: Wake Forest should win, but that's just too many points to give a talented VCU squad.

Princeton (+11 1/2) vs. Texas: Points should be at a premium (the total is 119), so the pedestrian attack of Princeton should keep them close, but I just can't take a dog that I don't see having a chance to win outright.

BYU (+2 1/2) vs. Syracuse: It's tempting to take the Cougars, who should be acclimated to the mile-high altitude in Denver, but this is case of the line being too short for a No. 12 seed, especially against the defending champs.

Maryland (-7) vs. Texas-El Paso: UTEP was the last at-large team to get in the field and takes on the ACC tourney champ. This line should be higher.

Stanford (-26) vs. Texas-San Antonio: Stanford should roll, but not sure they'll rub it in.

Gonzaga (-20) vs. Valparaiso: Ditto.

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