03/03/2004 12:00AM

To some, prelude beats kiss


This is the best time of year for college basketball fans, and by extension for college basketball bettors.

Selection Sunday, March 14, is just over a week away as everyone has their sights set on the NCAA Tournament. A lot of people, however, actually prefer the conference tournaments to the Big Dance.

Over the next 10 days, there will be more than 200 games with do-or-die implications in the 30 conference tournaments: teams trying to improve their seeding in the NCAA tournament, teams on the bubble trying to get in the tourney, and longshots trying to steal an automatic bid.

By contrast, there are a total of just 64 games in the NCAA Tournament, including the play-in game between the 64th and 65th seeds on the Tuesday before the real madness begins. And that is spread out over more than three weeks.

The conference tournaments have already begun in the Atlantic Sun, Big South, Southern, Horizon, and Ohio Valley, with the rest of the smaller conferences tipping off this weekend.

On a local note, UNLV has been playing better lately, but the Runnin' Rebels' only chance - considering they have a 16-10 record heading into the regular-season finale vs. BYU on Saturday and with no huge upsets to impress the selection committee - to make the NCAA's is to win the Mountain West tournament next Thursday through Saturday. That was an easier feat in year's past when it was held here in Las Vegas, but this year the tournament moves to Denver.

Stations starts match race contest

Race books in Las Vegas are still working on getting their pay-for-play handicapping contests up and running (after new gaming regulations went into effect Jan. 21), but freebies continue to fill the void with the contests at the Coast Casinos from Wednesday through Fridays, the contests at the Excalibur on Wednesdays and the Circus Circus on Fridays, and the separate contests at the Poker Palace on Wednesday through Friday and Saturday/Sunday.

The Station Casinos will be entering the fray next week with the "Free Match Race Challenge" every Wednesday and Friday at the Palace, Boulder, Texas, Sunset, Green Valley Ranch, Santa Fe, and Fiesta Rancho.

Micah Roberts, race and sports book director at the Palace Station, said they are aiming for between 10 and 12 matchups each day on the contest card. Contestants must be 21 years old and have a Station Casinos Board Pass or Fiesta Amigo Club card (which are also free). There is only one entry per person and everyone must turn in his or her own contest card.

Your selected horse doesn't have to win the race, just beat the other horse in the matchup. The people who pick the most number of winners will split the $2,000 daily prize - it's winner-take-all if someone wins outright.

In addition, a progressive bonus pool will start at $500 for anyone selecting a perfect card. The jackpot will grow until someone wins it.

Binion's reopening due April 1

Harrah's Entertainment is expected to reopen Binion's Horseshoe by April 1, in plenty of time for the World Series of Poker to take place April 22 through May 28.

Binion's Horseshoe was shut down Jan. 9 when U.S. marshals collected $1 million in debts owed to union health and pension funds and left the casino with not enough cash reserves on hand to pay gamblers. Harrah's purchase of the casino was expected to close Thursday with job interviews to begin next week for Binion's workers hoping to retain their jobs.

The main incentive for Harrah's to buy Binion's Horseshoe was to obtain the trademark rights to the Horseshoe name in Nevada (which it is in the process of acquiring out of state) and to the World Series of Poker. Harrah's will operate the downtown casino for at least a year. MTR Gaming Group, which runs Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, is in the process of buying the property and will rename it just Binion's, while Harrah's will then build a new casino using the Horseshoe name.

Longhorn thinking Latino

Conventional wisdom was that the Castaways Hotel and Casino on Boulder Highway, which was more famous in its heyday as the Showboat, would close down for good, but now the owners of the Longhorn casino on Boulder Highway are looking into buying the closed property and reopening it with a Hispanic theme to expand into an untapped market.

Randy Miller, Rich Gonzales and Rich Iannone have an exclusive option to buy the property through March 15 as they investigate the suitability of the site. If all goes to plan, the Castaways - or whatever it is renamed - still probably wouldn't open until late fall at the earliest.

Mid-April debut seen for monorail

The Las Vegas monorail will not be delayed that long, but it has had its setbacks.

Originally planned for Jan. 20, the monorail's opening date was pushed back to March 1 in hopes of having it open for the huge crowds this weekend in town for the NASCAR races, as well as weekly conventioneers, since a main stop is at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The monorail will run to most of the major casinos on the east side of the Strip between the Sahara and Tropicana.

Now, with some testing to still be completed, including a 30-day trial run that was to begin this week, the grand opening will probably be in April. The new goal would now appear to be up and running and accepting paying riders by the time 130,000 people come to town for the National Association of Broadcasters convention on April 17-22.

The fare will be $3 per ride, or $10 for a one-day pass. Some will think those prices are steep, but with the average price of a gallon of regular gas in Las Vegas hitting an all-time high of $2.09 this past week, according to AAA, the monorail might be a bargain after all.