03/17/2004 12:00AM

March Madness: Rattlers take play-in; Friday's bets 50-50 dogs and faves


LAS VEGAS - Underdogs 1, Favorites 0.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament officially began Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, with Florida A&M upsetting Lehigh 75-57 as a 4-point underdog in the play-in game between the 64th and 65th teams in the field. Dog bettors who parlayed Florida A&M to the under also cashed as the game barely stayed under the total of 133 1/2.

Despite the lopsided win, Florida A&M didn't do anything to dissuade Las Vegas oddsmakers from making Kentucky a 30-point favorite in their game Friday night in Columbus, Ohio.

A No. 16 seed has yet to upset a No. 1 seed since the NCAA tournament increased to 64 teams in 1985, so it's highly unlikely that Florida A&M can pull the trick. In fact, most Las Vegas sports books won't even offer odds on that happening though the offshore book Olympic (thegreek.com) had it at 40-1.

The fact that Florida A&M has a record of 15-16 and would only get to 500 with a monumental upset of Kentucky reminds me of a story from 1993 at the track formerly known as Arlington International Racecourse. We were a month or two into the meet when Daily Racing Form correspondent Marty McGee had a really nice score. I don't recall if it was a pick three or a trifecta, but he had it several times. Everyone was congratulating him like he had won the lottery, but the words I remember to this day were when McGee said, "All right! I'm even for the meet."

But enough reminiscing. Kentucky should roll to victory, but I'm not going to lay 30 points as an official bankroll play. In Friday's action, I find myself on three favorites and three (hopefully) live underdogs. Games are listed in chronological order. All times are Eastern.

12:30 p.m. at Kansas City, Mo.

Memphis, led by freshman phenom Sean Banks, is a fun, athletic team to watch. The Tigers' weakness is they don't defend big men well, but that's not a problem vs. South Carolina, which doesn't have a true center. This line has been bet down from 3 to 2, which is fine by me. Add in the fact that Kansas City is within driving distance for a lot of Memphis fans and this one is a no-brainer.

PLAY: Memphis for 1 unit.

2:55 p.m. at Columbus, Ohio

It's not prudent to take every team that is closer to home, so I'm going against Cincinnati (besides, Johnson City, Tenn., isn't too much farther from Columbus). The East Tennessee St. players are the same ones who nearly upset Wake Forest last year in the first round and are improved this year with a 27-5 record and 15-1 in the Southern Conference. Tim Smith and Zakee Wadood give the Buccaneers a nice inside-outside balance. Cincinnati is no slouch, having won the extremely competitive Conference USA tournament, but they will have their hands full with ETSU.

PLAY: E. Tennessee St. for 1 unit.

3 p.m. at Milwaukee, Wisc.

Give me another afternoon underdog - it'll be fun following this game that tips off right around the time of ETSU-Cincinnati. Northern Iowa earned its way in the field with a huge upset of Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney. Georgia Tech is solid both inside and out, as any No. 3 should be, but this game is really going to come down to Northern Iowa's 3-point shooting. I love this kind of NCAA underdog - they have nothing to lose and will be very loose. If Georgia Tech takes them for granted and doesn't guard the 3-point arc, this could be the biggest upset of the opening round.

PLAY: Northern Iowa for 1 unit.

7:20 p.m. at Milwaukee, Wisc.

When the brackets first came out Sunday, the fact Wisconsin was playing close to home in Milwaukee jumped out at everybody. In my bracket, I have Wisconsin advancing to the Sweet 16, so even though I'm not crazy about laying this many points, I have to have confidence that the home court will mean that much to them. They also have the incentive of feeling snubbed with a No. 6 seed despite winning the Big 10 tourney. The key reason to back Wisconsin, however, is their talent with guard Devin Harris leading the way from the outside, plus Mike Wilkinson, Dave Mader and Zach Morley being able to shut down Richmond on the inside. The only fear is if Richmond's Mike Skrocki is hot from 3-point range.

PLAY: Wisconsin for 1 unit.

9:40 p.m. at Orlando, Fla.

This is one of those rare games in which the higher-numbered seed is favored, and I think the oddsmakers have it right. Xavier had a nice run of upsetting No. 1 St. Joseph's and winning four days in four nights to win the Atlantic-10 tourney, but this isn't a good matchup for the Musketeers. Louisville's backcourt of Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean should be able to run the floor against Xavier all night long. Add to that the fact that Xavier isn't much of a 3-point shooting team and I don't see them coming back against a Louisville team that is getting healthy at the right time.

PLAY: Louisville for 1 unit.

9:55 p.m. at Kansas City, Mo.

If you thought based on earlier selections that I would only go with teams playing close to home, this will finally put that to rest. Just like Northern Iowa above, Illinois-Chicago has the 3-point shooting ability to pull an upset. Star forward Cedric Banks hits 43 percent from long range and the team as a whole shoots 39 percent. Kansas isn't the type to shoot the lights out and the Jayhawks, even with a more dominant inside game, could find themselves on the wrong end of trading 2s for 3s all night.

PLAY: Illinois-Chicago for 1 unit.

The rest of Friday's games

Alabama-Birmingham (+1 1/2) vs. Washington: This shootout (the total of 157 is the highest on the board) could go either way.

Kentucky (-30) vs. Florida A&M: The Cats will roar, but just leery of a backdoor cover.

Murray St. (+10) vs. Illinois: Possible suspension of two Murray St. player drove this line up from 7 1/ 2 to 10. An overadjustment? I'm not sure.

Mississippi St. (-20) vs. Monmouth: This game was the closest I came to laying 20 or more points. MSU should score early and often with Monmouth not having the offensive firepower to keep up. The Bulldogs' lackluster foul-shooting kept me from pulling the trigger.

Western Michigan (-1) vs. Vanderbilt: A Mid-American Conference team usually makes noise at NCAA time. Say hello to Western Michigan, which will be pressing and running from the opening tip. Vandy's guards will be hard-pressed to keep up.

UL-Lafayette (+7 1/2) vs. N.C. St.: UL-Lafayette is another running team with nothing to lose. I just think North Carolina St. will have too much for them in the end.

Utah (+1 1/2) vs. Boston College: This game is really a toss-up. I would give a slight edge to Utah because of their tournament experience (BC has virtually none).

Pittsburgh (-14) vs. Central Florida: Pitt was my pick to win it all - until they got their tough draw, seeded third in the East Rutherford Region. But they should roll here.

Oklahoma St. (-16) vs. E. Washington St.: Oklahoma St. is my pick to win it all, but still can't lay this many points in the first round against a good-shooting Eastern Washington St. team.

Providence (-7 1/2) vs. Pacific: Pacific is a dangerous dog, but Ryan Gomes should lead Providence to a win right around the number.

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