03/26/2009 12:00AM

NCAA tourney not the only game in town


LAS VEGAS - A lot of the focus of the sports world this weekend will be on the eight teams trying to earn berths in the NCAA men's basketball tournament's Final Four next weekend in Detroit.

However, professional sports bettors know that this also is the time of year when a lot of sports are converging, and it's important to keep tabs on everything, from the teams jockeying for position in the upcoming NHL and NBA playoffs as well as getting prepared for the major league baseball season (and, of course, the road to the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown races). Heck, the NFL has released some of its opening-week schedule, so we're sure to start seeing some football lines posted soon once the rest of the schedule comes out.

Last week I went 7-1 against the spread with my first-round NCAA tourney picks. For those interested, my plays throughout the weekend can be found at ViewFromVegas.com.

But let's take a look at the rest of the sports landscape:

* The MLB season starts a week from Sunday, on April 5, the day between the Final Four and the NCAA title game, with the Dodgers at the Giants. The Yankees are the 7-2 favorite to win the World Series at the Las Vegas Hilton with their off-season spending spree (what economic crisis?). The Red Sox are the second choice at 5-1, with the Cubs and Mets both at 7-1, the Angels and Rays at 12-1, and the Phillies, Indians, and Diamondbacks at 15-1.

The Hilton has the Yankees and the Red Sox with the same over/under season win victory total of 94 1/2, so it's interesting to note that the odds to win the AL East have the Yankees at even-money, while the Red Sox are 13-10. That appears to offer betting value; however, that means you'd have to assume it's a two-horse race and that the Rays, who are 9-2 to win the division, won't steal it like they did last year. The Rays have a projected win total of 88 1/2, the same as the defending World Series champion Phillies and the Angels. The only story that would have exceeded the Rays' Cinderella story last year would have been if the Cubs had won the World Series to end a 100-year drought. The Cubs have the highest win total in the National League at 92 1/2 and are prohibitive 1-2 favorites to win the NL Central. The only other odds-on division choice is the Angels at 5-11 to win the AL West. In the other divisions, the Mets are actually favored over the Phillies, with the Mets 5-4 and the Phillies 7-4; the Diamondbacks (7-5) and Dodgers (8-5) are neck and neck in the NL West; and the Tigers and Twins are 5-2 co-favorites in the AL Central.

Of course, betting baseball is as much about betting against bad teams as it is backing good teams. The bottom of the barrel are expected to be the Pirates (69 projected wins), Padres (71), Nationals (72), and Orioles (72, though that's a result of being in such a strong division; they could provide value against lesser foes).

* In addition to those traditional bets to win the World Series, American or National League pennants (you can generally cut a team's odds to win the World Series in half to get their odds to win their league), and divisions, the Hilton also offers an array of proposition bets tied to the entire season. Ryan Howard is the favorite to once again win the home run title, listed at 3-1 at the Hilton. Alex Rodriguez had been the second choice, but his hip injury has dropped his odds to 20-1, behind Ryan Braun at 10-1, Evan Longoria and Prince Fielder at 12-1, and Albert Pujols at 15-1. If you can't pick the exact player to hit the most homers but feel you know how many it will take, you can bet over/under 47 1/2 homers for the top slugger. The RBI title is set at 145 1/2, with most hits at 218 1/2, most wins by a pitcher at 20 1/2, most losses at 17 1/2, most saves at 49 1/2, and most strikeouts at 252 1/2. In this age of specialization, with teams not letting starters go too deep into games and letting closers finish off most games, I like under 7 1/2 for the most complete games by any pitcher (though you have to lay -130 for the under). The Hilton also has individual over/under props such as Ichiro Suzuki over/under 201 1/ 2 hits, Howard over/under 43 1/ 2 homers (A-Rod is off the board at this time), a number of top pitchers (Brandon Webb, C.C. Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Tim Lincecum) all set at 15 1/2 wins, and Francisco Rodriguez at 40 1/2 saves.

* If you trust the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, you have to think the Lakers and the Cavaliers are on a collision course to meet in the NBA finals, as the Lakers are the 8-5 favorites to win the title with the Cavs right behind at 2-1. The defending champion Celtics are at 7-2, with their fate hinging on Kevin Garnett's health the rest of the way. There is then a big dropoff to the Spurs and Magic at 15-1, and the Hornets, Rockets, and Jazz at 20-1.

* The chase for the Stanley Cup isn't any more wide open. The Red Wings are a solid 5-2 favorite to win it all, with the Sharks next at 9-2. Both of those play in the Western Conference. The East is best represented by the Bruins and Devils at 7-1. Dark horses in the more balanced Eastern Conference include Alex Ovechkin and his Capitals at 8-1 and Sidney Crosby and his Penguins at 12-1.

* We're heading into the stretch of Kentucky Derby prep races, and it really gets going this Saturday with the Florida Derby. Most of the top 3-year-olds will have one more prep race over the next three weekends. John Avello, director of race and sports for Wynn Las Vegas, runs the biggest future book in town. It has been open since last September. Avello said he is hoping for some new contenders to emerge from these final prep races.

"Any of the top horses that you ask me about right now is a loser for my future book," Avello said. "The top ones have also received significant play, and most of them continue to run well. I could really use a Charismatic," who came on the scene late in 1999 to win the Lexington Stakes and the Derby.

Friesan Fire is the favorite in Wynn's future book, followed by the trio of Dunkirk, The Pamplemousse, and Pioneerof the Nile at 10-1, Quality Road and I Want Revenge at 12-1, and Old Fashioned at 14-1. All of those were available at 100-1 or more earlier. The next tier of horses also has gotten support, as Desert Party has been bet down from 200-1 to 20-1, Theregoesjojo from 150-1 to 20-1, Beethoven from 150-1 to 25-1, Papa Clem from 125-1 down to 25-1, Imperial Council from 100-1 to 25-1, and Charitable Man from 100-1 to 30-1. If all of those make it to the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May, it won't leave Avello with many horses on his side.