03/18/2003 12:00AM

Six live dogs barking as Big Dance gets going

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After handicapping all 16 games on Thursday's NCAA Tournament slate, I landed on six live underdogs (one in the Midwest, five in the West).

Another potential play was Holy Cross, but that was the biggest line move early in the week as Marquette opened as a 13-point favorite and was bet down to 11 at most Las Vegas sports books (10 1/2 at Caesars Palace) by noon Tuesday. That took away a lot of value in the line, so I'll pass.

The other 10 favorites will be going forward in my brackets, but I'm not willing to lay the points with so many potential upsets lurking.

Let the madness begin.

W. Kentucky (+10) vs. Illinois (under 141)

There have been some rumblings from the Illinois camp about not getting a higher seed after winning the Big 10 tournament. After Thursday's game, the Illini will really be wishing they had a higher seed and an easier opponent. Both teams can play defense (WKU shut down Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt title game, with runs of 11-3 before halftime and 18-2 after the break; Illinois has played great defense down the stretch). Guard Patrick Sparks will be the key to WKU's upset bid, but even if they fall short, they should stay within the number in a game in which both teams could score in the 60's.

PLAY: Western Kentucky +10 for 1 unit and under 141 for 1 unit.

Vermont (+26) vs. Arizona

Arizona coach Lute Olson has been vocal about how inconsequential he feels the Pac-10 conference tournament is, and then his team went out and played like it in a first-round loss to UCLA. Everyone will be watching to see if Arizona is able to flip on the switch, or if the Wildcats will have one of their infamous tournament struggles against low seeds. Winning the lowly regarded America East tournament and having nothing to lose, Vermont should be loose, and it has some talented front-line players in Taylor Coppenrath and Matt Sheftic. I'm not saying Arizona will be the first ever No. 1 seed to lose a first-round game, but this is the equivalent of a horse needing a race off a layoff. The Wildcats are 2-9 vs. the spread in their last 11 games as double-digit favorites.

PLAY: Vermont for 1 unit.

Gonzaga (+1) vs. Cincinnati

After being a No. 6 seed last year and losing in an upset to Wyoming, Gonzaga is back in its more comfortable role of NCAA Tournament underdog (albeit by 1 point). The Zags lost the West Coast Conference title game to San Diego, but they were playing without center Cory Violette, who was out with a sprained ankle. Violette's return, combined with the play of guard Blake Stepp and forward Ronny Turiaf, should be enough to defeat a young Cincinnati team, which with a record of 17-11, is only seeded this high based on past reputation. The Zags should also have an edge in fan support as they have sold their allotment of tickets in Salt Lake City.

PLAY: Gonzaga for 1 unit.

Central Michigan (+4 1/2) vs. Creighton

Creighton has been considered the best of the mid-majors all season long, while Central Michigan has snuck under the radar screen. Central Michigan, the MAC champion, has the best spread record in the country at 19-6 (76 percent). The Chippewas' weakness is turning the ball over (averaging 16 per game), but if guards T.J. Meerman and J.R. Wallace can get the ball to 7-foot center Chris Kaman (averaging 22.7 points and 12.3 rebounds), Creighton won't be able to stop the big man.

PLAY: Central Michigan for 1 unit.

Colorado St. (+15) vs. Duke

Colorado St. is the only team that won at Utah this year, and that is where this game is being played. So, the Rams have kind of a home-court advantage. Throw in the fact that Duke was only 5-10 against the spread as double-digit favorites this season (and only 8-17-1 overall), and it's hard to pass up the points. In addition, Colorado St.'s big men, Matt Nelson and Brian Greene, could give the Blue Devils fits, especially with the ankle injury to Duke's Shavlik Randolph. Duke should win, but the Blue Devils need to be hot from 3-point range to get the cover.

PLAY: Colorado St. for 1 unit.

Weber St. (+7 1/2) vs. Wisconsin

Wisconsin won the regular-season Big 10 title in a down year for the league and showed its weaknesses in a conference tourney loss to Ohio St. Wisconsin is a small team that needs to hit its 3-pointers to be successful, and will be at a disadvantage against Weber St.'s post players, which include former Buckeye Slobodan Ocokoljic. Playmaker Jermaine Boyette will also keep Wisconsin's perimeter players on the run. Weber St. has won 17 straight and has been one of the best bets this season with a spread record of 18-7-1. To be fair, Wisconsin is also near the top at 18-7, but four of those non-covers were when they were favored by 7 1/2 points or fewer (meaning they don't fare as well when playing a quality opponent). Conversely, Weber St. is 4-1 as an underdog, and the Wildcats should bark.

PLAY: Weber St. for 1 unit.