03/15/2006 1:00AM

NCAA: Looking for a formful Friday

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LAS VEGAS - When first introduced to horse racing, I remember hearing or reading a piece of advice that's stuck with me ever since. I don't recall the source, but it went something like this: most players bet the top contenders early in the card because those horses "should win," so that's when there's more value betting long shots; after losing all day on the chalk, they start getting desperate to get their money back and start playing long shots, so that's when the favorites have more value.

Now, that might have been truer in the days when horseplayers mostly bet their home track, but I'm hoping it's a similar case in this week's opening round of the NCAA tournament. It's a coincidence that it worked out this way (I didn't make a conscious effort to bet this way), but on Thursday, when the public might be loading up on the favorites that "should" win, I went with four underdogs and two favorites. Now, on Friday, I'm on four favorites and two underdogs, so hopefully the dogs are barking on Thursday and the public starts expecting the trend to continue and then the favorites start coming in late in the first-round card.

Northwestern St. (+7 1/2) vs. Iowa - 12:25 p.m. at Auburn Hills, Mich.

That all being said, I'll start with an underdog in one of the earliest games to be played Friday. Iowa is coming off the Big 10 conference tournament championship and would appear to be the far superior team over the Southland Conference champs, but then why is this line only 7 1/2? It's because the Demons can play. Coach Mike McConathy doesn't have an All-American on his roster, but he regularly goes 10-deep on his roster to keep his players fresh and challenging every shot on defense and keep pushing the ball up the floor on offense. Iowa can certainly keep up talent-wise, but if Northwestern St. can set the tempo and make this a shootout, I like the Demons' chances of being in it until the very end.

PLAY: Northwestern St. for 1 unit.

Arkansas (-4 1/2) vs. Bucknell - 12:30 p.m. at Dallas, Texas

Bucknell was the feel-good story last year with its upset of Kansas as a No. 14 seed, but the Bison won't be overlooked this year and that's already been shown with a No. 9 seed, an all-time high for a Patriot League champ. Arkansas played well down the stretch and should carry that momentum into the tournament. Guard Ronnie Brewer, at 6-7, creates matchup problems for most team, but especially one like Bucknell with undersized guards. In fact, Arkansas will enjoy a significant height advantage almost at all times and that should be the key to an easy victory.

PLAY: Arkansas for 1 unit.

Georgetown (-4) vs. Northern Iowa - 2:35 p.m. at Dayton, Ohio

Georgetown is one of my top darkhorse teams in this year's tournament (I have them knocking off Ohio St. in the second round in my bracket). The Hoyas are always swarming around the ball on defense and really pass the ball around looking for the open shot on offense. Georgetown was playing well down the stretch and I thought they were going to win the Big East title until they lost to Syracuse in the semifinals. But that can be excused because the Orangemen were clearly a team of destiny at Madison Square Garden. But while Georgetown can compete with the best - the Hoyas beat Duke, Pitt and Marquette this year - it's not even clear that Northern Iowa deserves to be in the tourney after losing five of its last seven games and finishing behind two Missouri Valley teams that didn't make the NCAA field. I think the Hoyas roll.

PLAY: Georgetown for 1 unit.

Michigan St. (-4.5) vs. George Mason - 7:10 p.m. at Dayton, Ohio

George Mason is another team that has "fraud" written all over it. Despite its 23-7 record, George Mason didn't win either the regular-season Colonial Athletic Association title, nor the conference tourney. George Mason also lost twice to Hofstra, which finished 24-6, in the past three weeks. Add into that the fact that senior guard Tony Skinn has been suspended for this game for a low blow in the conference semifinal, and it's puzzling why the selection committee put the Patriots in the tourney and why Michigan St. is only favored by 4 1/2. But I'll take the Spartans and their high-scoring triumvirate of Maurice Ager (19 points per game), Paul Davis (17.9) and Shannon Brown (17.9). George Mason might shut down one, but not all of them.

PLAY: Michigan St. for 1 unit.

Bradley (+7 1/2) vs. Kansas - 9:30 p.m. at Auburn Hills, Mich.

I'll dip back into the underdog pool with a play on Bradley, which is bigger than one would expect from a Missouri Valley team and can match up well with the Big 12 conference tournament champion. Kansas came on strong, but they're still a young team (two sophomore and three freshman in the starting lineup) and this will be a huge test for them to see if the Jayhawks are for real or a year away. Both teams play really good defense and a low-scoring game would certainly help the underdog cover this big of a spread.

PLAY: Bradley for 1 unit.

Kentucky (-2.5) vs. Ala.-Birmingham - 9:45 p.m. at Philadelphia, Pa.

OK, Kentucky is not as strong as in recent years and Alabama-Birmingham has pulled major upsets each of the last two years and is certainly an up-and-coming program under coach Mike Anderson. But I can't shake the feeling that the Wildcats, despite being inconsistent all year, will come with their best effort to try and avenge the loss to UAB two years ago when Kentucky was a No. 1 seed. Even though half the team was still in high school, you know the upperclassmen have let them know how humiliating that loss was.

PLAY: Kentucky for 1 unit.

Selections for March 17 Games

FRIDAY, MARCH 17

At Dayton, Ohio

Georgetown (-4) vs. Northern Iowa Pick: GEORGETOWN

Ohio St. (-11.5) vs. Davidson Pick: Davidson

Michigan St. (-4.5) vs. George Mason Pick: MICHIGAN ST.

North Carolina (-12) vs. Murray St. Pick: Murray St.

At Philadelphia, Pa.

Arizona (-1) vs. Wisconsin Pick: Arizona

Villanova (-20) vs. Monmouth Pick: Villanova

Kentucky (-2.5) vs. Ala.-Birmingham Pick: KENTUCKY

Connecticut (-22): vs. Albany Pick: Connecticut

At Auburn Hills, Mich.

Pittsburgh (-6) vs. Kent Pick: Pittsburgh

Kansas (-7.5) vs. Bradley Pick: BRADLEY

Iowa (-7.5) vs. Northwestern St. Pick: NORTHWESTERN ST.

West Virginia (-4) vs. Southern Illinois Pick: Southern Illinois

At Dallas, Texas

Arkansas (-4.5) vs. Bucknell Pick: ARKANSAS

Memphis (-14) vs. Oral Roberts Pick: Memphis

California (-1) vs. North Carolina St. Pick: North Carolina St.

Texas (-15) vs. Pennsylvania Pick: Texas

Best bets in CAPS, detailed analysis above.