03/15/2004 1:00AM

March Madness: Opening numbers, line moves and other oddities


LAS VEGAS - Selection Sunday was just another day at the office for Ken White, co-owner and CEO of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the top oddsmaking firm in the world.

White started his day around 8:30 a.m. and pored over the box scores from Saturday's NBA and college basketball action, making notes in his personal logs on each team for future reference. With the announcement of the NCAA first-round matchups - set for 3 p.m. local time - still several hours away, White handicapped Monday's NBA action as well as mixing in some research on the reports from baseball spring training camps. By 11 a.m., he was done with the other sports and could finally concentrate college basketball.

"There are only three NBA games on Monday, so it was nice to get that out of the way," White said when reached around 9 p.m., at which time he still had his nose to the grindstone, working on the upcoming baseball season.

It was the time in-between when he and his staff formulated the opening betting numbers for the NCAA tournament that would be widely distributed by the end of the night. From about 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., White acclimated himself with the teams that had earned automatic bids from conferences that aren't normally on the betting boards. White and his staff - seven oddsmakers in all on this day - then got ready to do what just about every college basketball fan in the country did on Sunday afternoon: watch the selection show on CBS.

"After watching the show together, everybody went in their own direction and worked on their own lines," White said. "Around 5:40, we came together as a team and compared notes and came up with what we felt was the best possible number on each game."

The lines were then sent out to LVSC's clients around 6:15 p.m. The Stardust, which has long had the reputation of putting up the first bettable lines in Las Vegas, posted the first-round pointspreads at 6:28 p.m. with The Mirage putting theirs up 10 minutes later. White said the Stratosphere and the Casino MonteLago followed suit within the next hour.

The Stardust, as is its tradition, held a lottery to determine who would get first crack at the opening numbers, but the action wasn't as fast and furious as one might expect.

"I think we put up some solid numbers," said Bob Scucci, the Stardust's director of race and sports. "There were only a few games where the bettors saw an opportunity with what they perceived to be a soft number. None of the numbers really ran. My guess is that the bettors are looking at all the available numbers out there and they'll be back."

The biggest early line move was on Friday's Pittsburgh-Central Florida game. The Stardust opened No. 3 seed Pitt as a 12 1/2-point favorite (LVSC sent out the line as 15 1/2, and The Mirage opened at 14) and it immediately got bet up to 13 1/2, then 14 and finally 14 1/2. The only other game to move more than a point was Friday's Mississippi St.-Monmouth matchup. The Stardust opened No. 2 seed Mississippi St. - 17 1/2 (LVSC had it at 20, while The Mirage used 19) and saw it get bet quickly to 18 1/2 before settling at 19.

Another interesting line move was on Thursday's St. Joseph's-Liberty game. LVSC's recommendation was St. Joe's -27, but the Stardust made the line only 23. The first big bet was on No. 1-seeded St. Joe's, raising the line to 24, but then the offshore book Olympic made the line 22 1/2, and the Stardust's line got bet back down to 23.

"The toughest numbers to make are the ones furthest from zero," White said. "In the case of St. Joe's, if they come out and play their best, they should win by more than 27, but if they're not motivated to win by that much, if they're saving themselves for the next game, then Liberty can stay within the number."

As to be expected, the other big spreads were on the top seeds. No. 1 Duke opened as a 34-point favorite over Alabama St., No. 1 Stanford opened -26 vs. Texas-San Antonio. No line was posted on the remaining top seed, Kentucky, which had to wait for the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Lehigh and Florida A&M.

There were only six other games with double-digit spreads: Connecticut -20 vs. Vermont, Wake Forest -13 1/2 vs. Virginia Commonwealth, Texas -11 1/2 vs. Princeton, Gonzaga -20 vs. Valparaiso, Georgia Tech -12 vs. Northern Iowa, and Oklahoma St. -16 vs. Eastern Washington.

Two games opened at pick-em, and interestingly both involve No. 6 seeds vs. No. 11s: Vanderbilt vs. Western Michigan and Boston College vs. Utah. Scucci said the thought was to let the public dictate the favorite and in both cases the bettors bet the No. 6 seed - Vanderbilt and Boston College, respectively, to 1-point favoritism.

There were two lower-seeded teams that were installed as favorites. No. 10 Louisville opened as a 2-point favorite over Atlantic 10 champ Xavier and No. 9 Arizona opened as a 3 1/2-point choice over No. 8 Seton Hall before being bet down to 3. That one was especially odd since LVSC sent out the line as 4 1/2, though not too surprising since Olympic had it at 2 1/2 offshore.

In addition to power ratings, part of the reason that Louisville and Arizona are favored is they are traditionally popular teams. Scucci said that oddsmakers always have to take the public's opinions and prejudices into account when setting a line.

"It can be tricky when a public team plays a lesser-known good team," Scucci said. "With Illinois against Murray State, the right number is probably 6 or 6 1/2, but if people come in and see that, they're just going to bet Illinois, so we raised it to 7 1/2. Another example is Michigan St.-Nevada. I know we're going to get all Michigan St. money. A lot of people don't really know how good Nevada is this year."

The Stardust opened Michigan St. -2 1/2. Scucci said he could have made the number lower, but he wanted to attract some Nevada money.

"I might not be able to tell you who is going to win," Scucci said, "but I know which side the money will be on."

It's all in a day's work.

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