03/22/2006 12:00AM

NCAA selections and analysis for Friday


LAS VEGAS - This city has always been a magnet for people that want to see things, or be seen. It's a microcosm of American life, heck, of Earthian life, unlike anyplace else.

In 1947, Jimmy Stewart starred in a movie called "Magic Town" about a pollster who finds a city that reflects America's opinions. More than a half-century, Vegas is Magic Town, complete with market researchers at the MGM Grand and The Venetian to get public feedback on TV shows and consumer products. The only difference is that instead of the melting-pot already being here, it visits every weekend.

So, when people want to know what's really going on in this country, they come here. Case in point are two prominent sports organizations who were here last weekend on fact-finding missions.

The NCAA had a representative at The Mirage during the opening round of the men's basketball tournament to get an inside look at how the odds are set, how the sports books here are regulated, and how they monitor the betting action. This visit has been long overdue as it was last July when Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's director of agents, gambling and amateurism activities, said the organization was going to work with the sports books here to hopefully protect against potential point-shaving scandals. Nothing was done during the football or basketball regular seasons, but better late than never. The representative is supposed to be watching the goings-on again this weekend.

ESPN also had a crew in town during the opening two rounds, interviewing bookmakers and professional bettors about buzzer-beaters and crazy plays that affect the betting results on games, even if they don't impact the winner on the scoreboard. No air date has been set in stone, but it's expected to be prior to the championship game on April 3.

It's really hard to be out on the town any weekend in Vegas and not spot a celebrity, and it's especially true during marquee events like March Madness. This past week alone, the following were spotted (courtesy of Norm Clarke's celebrity/gossip column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal) in alphabetical order: Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Tony Curtis, Harvey Fierstein, Laurence Fishburne, John Goodman, Anthony Hopkins, Steven Jackson, Ron Jeremy, Michael Keaton, Robin Leach, Emmanuel Lewis, Wayne Newton, Joey Porter, Nicole Richie, Dennis Rodman, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Jerry Tarkanian, and Vanilla Ice. Add to that eclectic list the "American Idol" crew featuring Las Vegas Hilton headliner Barry Manilow and the Fab Five from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and you have quite a cross-section of Americana.

And they're sure to keep coming, and people will come here to observe them, and observe the people observing them. The ripple effect is like the video of a guy watching himself on TV, while in the background is him on TV, and so on.

So, who knows who will be seen or be here to see something this weekend. But an awful lot of people will be watching the NCAA tournament games as the field is whittled down to the Elite Eight by Friday night, and then down to the Final Four by Sunday afternoon. Let the people-watching and game-watching begin.

Georgetown (+3) vs. Florida
6:40 p.m. at Minneapolis, Minn.

Georgetown was my darkhorse pick before the tournament started, and I had the Hoyas winning this matchup in my bracket, so you know I have to take them with the points. Georgetown certainly hasn't done anything to lose that trust, shutting down Northern Iowa in the first round and then upsetting No. 2 seed Ohio St. this past Sunday. Coach John Thompson III has this team built for the tourney with a swarming defense and a methodical offense that shows how well they play as a team, working the ball around for the best possible shot. Florida has been impressive in its own right as the Gators are the only team to win by more than 20 points in both of their games so far, but that won't happen here. All four Florida starters average in double figures, but the Georgetown defense is capable of shutting down anyone. Roy Hibbert, a 7-foot-2 sophomore, has really stepped up for Georgetown in the tournament on both ends of the floor, and he should have another big game and prove to be the difference.

PLAY: Georgetown for 1 unit.

Washington (+6 1/2) vs. UConn
6:55 p.m. at Washington, D.C.

UConn is the most talented team overall and the favorite to win the title, but every time that it seems like UConn should put it all together and show their dominance, the team seems to go through the motions and do just enough to win. Case in point: UConn is 0-2 against the spread in the tourney and I hope it continues here. Washington has the bulk inside to match UConn (I'm using school names since they're both Huskies) and win the battle of the boards and will really be in good shape if they're able to deny passes into the paint and make UConn rely on its outside shooting, which can be sporadic. But the key reason to like Washington is the play of senior guard Brandon Roy, the Pac-10 player of the year. He can hit the open man to let his teammates get the job done, or can carry the team on his shoulders. UConn might again advance based on overall talent, but I really like Washington to stay inside this generous number.

PLAY: Washington for 1 unit.

Games of March 24

At Washington, D.C

George Mason (-1.5) vs. Wichita St. Pick: Wichita St.

UConn (-6.5) vs. Washington Pick: WASHINGTON

At Minneapolis, Minn.

Florida (-3) vs. Georgetown Pick: GEORGETOWN

Villanova (-2.5) vs. Boston College Pick: Villanova

Best bets in CAPS

Bankroll record through Sunday: 9-8-1 for a net profit of 0.2 units. Record on all tournament games: 25-23-1.