03/04/2002 1:00AM

Rebels have home edge in tourney


Conference basketball tournaments are going on throughout the country this week, and Las Vegas gets a close-up view with the Mountain West Conference tournament at the Thomas and Mack Center on Thursday through Saturday.

The University of Nevada at Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels, like the rest of the teams in the MWC (with the exception of Utah and possibly Wyoming), needs to win the tourney to make the NCAA field. Otherwise, they are NIT-bound.

UNLV has been a pleasant surprise in its first year under coach Charlie Spoonhour. The Rebels are the No. 3 seed with a record of 18-9, 9-5 in the MWC. More important is their 16-10 record against the spread, including 9-2 in their last 11 games on the betting boards. The Rebels have won their last eight home games, covering five, and have a huge advantage with the tourney being played on their court.

UNLV faces New Mexico (16-12 overall, 6-8 MWC) in Thursday's night first-round finale (to be shown live on ESPN at 9 p.m. Pacific). The two teams met here last Saturday, with the Rebels rolling to a 91-82 win as a 4 1/2-point favorite. New Mexico is 10-15 against the spread. ESPN will also televise a semifinal game at 9 p.m. Friday and the title game at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Other first-round games on Thursday:

* No. 1 seed Wyoming (20-7, 11-3 MWC) is only 9-15 against the spread, including 1-8 in its last nine games. The Cowboys face No. 8 seed Air Force (9-18, 3-11) at high noon. Despite its far worse straight-up record, Air Force has been a much better bet this year, going 16-6-1 against the spread, including covering both games vs. Wyoming.

* No. 4 BYU (17-10, 7-7) takes on No. 5 San Diego St. (18-11, 7-7) at 2:30 p.m. BYU is a dead-even 12-12-1 against the spread, but is a meager 1-7 down the stretch, while San Diego St. is 14-11 against the spread and a legitimate dark horse in this tourney.

* No. 2 Utah (20-7, 10-4) is only 9-13 against the spread this year, but the Utes have covered their last three, including a 92-82 win over their first-round opponent, Colorado State (12-17, 3-11), last Thursday. Colorado State is only slightly better against the spread at 11-13.

The Mountain West women's tournament also takes place at the Thomas and Mack, starting on Wednesday with the quarterfinals and continuing Friday with the semifinals and the title game Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

The Lady Rebels (21-6, 9-5), who have been flirting with the Top 25 all season, need at least one win (and probably two) to get into the NCAAs. They also have a first-round revenge game vs. Utah, which beat the Lady Rebels 69-65 last Saturday.

Drawing people in

Las Vegas sports books are gearing up with March Madness promotions. Most will be in the form of contests built around tournament brackets and will commence with the first-round games on March 14, but Arizona Charlie's West is offering a monthlong promotion.

Starting Tuesday and running through Saturday, March 30, bettors receive drawing tickets for every three-team-or-more college basketball parlay (minimum bet $10) they cash at Charlie's. A winning three-team parlay will be worth one drawing ticket for every $10 wagered, a four-team parlay will be worth three drawing tickets for every $10 wagered, a five-teamer is worth five tickets, a six-teamer is worth 10 tickets, a seven-teamer earns 20 tickets and an eight-teamer gets 50 drawing tickets.

Three tickets will be pulled on April 1 after the national championship game. The prizes are $500, $300 and $200. Winner must be present. Complete rules are available in the sports book.

* Caesars Palace (and related Park Place Entertainment properties) will have a $50 buy-in March Mania contest in which contestants pick every tournament game against the spread. Barley's, Terrible's and the JW Marriott (formerly The Regent) have also announced they will be having NCAA handicapping contests.

Winners: Marlin, NASCAR, Vegas

They came, they saw, they spent a lot of money.

Yep, the good old boys of NASCAR rolled through town last week and brought their loyal fans with them. They filled Las Vegas's rooms to near-capacity and watched the races by day and gambled by night.

NASCAR betting has exploded in recent years, and sports books again reported increases of 10 to 30 percent in handle over last year's running of the Sam's Town 300 Busch Series race and the UAW-Daimler-Chrysler 400 Winston Cup event.

When Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton won the Busch race Saturday, it didn't matter how books chose to take bets - they still lost.

Some books listed Burton with the 10-1 "field," which took a lot of action. The Palms did not have odds on Burton, because it listed only the regular Busch drivers. It still lost when Johnny Sauter, who opened at 30-1 and popular with bettors, finished third overall and first of those on the list.

Station Casinos waited until they knew what Winston Cup drivers would be included. Stations opened Burton at 6-1, and he got bet down to the 2-1 favorite, so bettors won there, too.

The bettors didn't fare as well on Sunday, when Sterling Marlin won the main event. Lots of bets were made on favorites such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Bobby Labonte and longshots such as Las Vegan Kurt Busch, who actually went off as the 4-1 favorite at Station Casinos after opening at 55-1.

But Stations didn't totally luck out in the race. Palace Station race and sports book manager Micah Roberts joked that a promotion kind of backfired.

"We had Sterling Marlin signing autographs here Friday night," Roberts said. "People would come in, get an autograph, pick up the betting sheets and bet Marlin because they just met him. We probably had 500 people in here that night with Marlin tickets."

Marlin opened at 8-1 at Station Casinos, but his odds were only lowered to 7-1 by race time.

Marlin was 8-1 at most other properties on Sunday. Marlin was also 8-1 in a prop bet that Stations had before the Daytona 500 in which bettors tried to pick who would be leading the Winston Cup point standings after the Las Vegas race.

Marlin left town with a 75-point lead over Ryan Newman . . . and a lot of happy fans.