03/17/2003 1:00AM

Stardust, Mirage setting the tone


Putting up early odds before the competition can leave a sports book in a precarious position. About the only ones looking to fire away are professional bettors who can quickly expose a soft line.

But that didn't keep the Stardust and The Mirage from putting up lines on the NCAA men's tournament on Sunday evening a few hours after the field of 65 was announced.

After the professional bettors bet their informed opinions (or looked for some middle ground in comparison to odds available offshore), the lines were pounded into place. When other books around town opened for business Monday morning, they fell in line with the adjusted lines at the Stardust and The Mirage.

The Stardust has a long-standing reputation for posting what many people refer to as the official Las Vegas Line and conducted a lottery with professional bettors shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday. "We take pride in posting the first odds in town," said Bob Scucci, the Stardust's director of race and sports. "We don't take the responsibility lightly"

When the dust had settled, 14 opening-round games saw line movement. Keeping in tune with the rash of recent upsets, the wise guys jumped on nine underdogs and only five favorites.

The dogs were NC-Asheville (bet from +2 to +1 in Tuesday's play-in game vs. Texas Southern), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (+6 to +5 vs. Notre Dame), Holy Cross (+13 to +12 vs. Marquette), Vermont (+26 to +25 vs. Arizona), Penn (+4 1/2 to +4 vs. Oklahoma State), Manhattan (+8 to +7 1/2 vs. Syracuse), IUPUI (+28 to +27 1/2 vs. Kentucky), and Utah (+4 to +3 1/2 vs. Oregon).

The favorites included Oklahoma (bet from -24 to -25 vs. S. Carolina St.), Creighton (-4 to -5 vs. Central Michigan), Pittsburgh (-18 1/2 to -19 1/2 vs. Wagner), LSU (-4 to -5 vs. Purdue), and Xavier (-11 1/2 to -12 1/2 vs. Troy State).

Not surprisingly, the No. 1 seeds are the biggest chalk: Kentucky, Arizona, and Oklahoma are all favored by at least 25 points. Texas is expected to be a huge choice over the survivor of Tuesday's game.

The odds for the rest of the games pretty much line up with the seedings, except for No. 4 seed Dayton is only a 2 1/2-point favorite over Tulsa, No. 7 seed Indiana is only a 1-point favorite over No. 10 Alabama, and No. 9 seed N.C. State is a 1-point choice over California (the only game in this year's first round in which a lower seed is a favorite).

NCAA deals with BYU

The NCAA's announcement that BYU would be moved from the South Regional to the Midwest in the round of 16 so they potentially wouldn't have to play on a Sunday had sports books directors scrambling Monday morning.

Odds to win the regionals were put on hold as bookmakers tried to figure out how to structure the bets. Scucci said he planned to make a disclaimer in which "only teams that start in a regional can win it." He said if a team switches and makes it to the Final Four, all bets in that regional would be refunded.

Robert Walker, director of race and sports for the MGM-Mirage properties (The Mirage, MGM Grand, Bellagio, Treasure Island, New York-New York, and Golden Nugget) said he was planning to book the bet normally for the East and West regionals, and then group all the teams from the South and Midwest and label it "odds to reach the Final Four."

"BYU is only a 4-point underdog to UConn and would be similarly priced if they face Stanford, so it's not out of the realm of possibility," Walker said. "It would be an embarrassment for the NCAA" - if BYU makes it through the first two rounds. "They'll be cheering for that not to happen. I guess you could say the NCAA has action."

But, controversy aside, Walker said it should be an exciting tournament.

"I would say there may be 20-plus teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the tournament," Walker said. "It was extremely difficult to determine the odds this year for a couple of reasons. First, there are a lot of young teams and many of these teams are very inconsistent. Second, parity has played a much larger role than ever before."

Walker made Kentucky the 2-1 favorite to win it all, with Arizona as the 7-2 second choice. Texas is 7-1 and Oklahoma is 8-1.

If betting the games isn't enough . . .

Sunset Station's "Bracket Mania" contest costs only $10 and has a guaranteed prize pool of $7,500. First prize for the most overall points (which are awarded 1 point for each first-round winner, 2 points for each second-round winner, 4 for each third-round winner, 8 for each team reaching the Final Four, 16 for each national semifinal winner, and 32 for having the champion) is $1,500, with $750 for second and $250 for third. In addition, there is a $600 prize for the winner of each round, with $300 for second, and $100 for third. There is a limit of three entries per person.

Bert Cirincione, race and sports book manager at Sunset Station, said Monday morning that a disclaimer would be on the entry forms that points will be graded on the initial bracket, and any points accumulated by teams switching regions would be void.

* A trio of Station Casinos - Wild Wild West, Barley's, and Wildfire - are combining for their "Smash the Glass" contest. Entrants pay $25 per entry (buy four, get one free) and make their selections for the first two rounds. Then, they return the following week to make selections in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, and then again for the Final Four. All entry fees are returned as prize money, with 50 percent going to the overall winner and 25 percent to the highest point totals on each of the first two weekends.

* The Rampart - in conjunction with its sister book at the Cannery - is renewing its very popular promotion from last year. It's a free shot at a lot of money, but it's harder than it looks. Entrants (one per person) try to predict the 16 teams that will survive through the first two rounds. Anyone (and everyone) going 16 for 16 wins $5,000; 15 for 16 nets $1,000; 14 correct collects $500; 13 right gets $50; and 12 for 16 wins $25. A great deal, and you thought only drinks were free in Las Vegas.