07/29/2001 11:00PM

Tourney at casino stirs teapot

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Las Vegas has been the center of the college basketball world this past week. Well, more like the eye of the hurricane.

The Big Time Tournament, an event for prep All-Star teams, has been taking place at 13 area high schools. It's the best collection of high school stars anywhere, and the top college coaches in the country are watching their every move. A short roll call: Louisville's Rick Pitino, Arizona's Lute Olsen, Fresno State's Jerry Tarkanian, and Arkansas's Nolan Richardson.

But while the coaches thought the only news during their visit would be how high one kid could jump or whether another kid's injured ankle was healing correctly, a whole other storm was brewing.

Word that three college basketball tournaments were scheduled to be held at the Paris Hotel & Casino this upcoming season reached Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who is trying to ban college betting in Nevada, and Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is sponsoring a similar bill in the house. Graham ripped the NCAA for being "unbelievably stupid" and McCain called for the NCAA to pull its teams from the tournaments.

The politicians were reacting to the mixed signals that were being sent by schools that talked about being against betting on college sports yet sent their teams to games being played on casino grounds.

Earlier this month, about 20 college coaches went to Washington D.C. in a made-for-media event to drum up support for the college-betting ban. Several of them, including Iowa State's Larry Eustachy, had already signed on the dotted line to play in these Las Vegas preseason tournaments.

It's amazing that this controversy didn't come up sooner. The NCAA was notified of the tournament's location (convention space at the Paris was going to be converted into a 3,000-seat arena) back in April and no objection was made.

A lot of high-profile programs had agreed to participate. Oklahoma State, Providence, and Austin Peay are among the teams coming for a Nov. 19-21 event. The field for the Nov. 22-24 Las Vegas Invitational includes Illinois, Iowa State, and Georgia Tech. The Dec. 20-22 Las Vegas Classic has the best field of all, including Purdue, Cincinnati, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Richmond, Southwest Missouri State, and Illinois-Chicago.

Last Thursday, after the criticism from McCain and Graham, NCAA president Cedric Dempsey, issued a release, saying: "Let me say personally that it is wrong for NCAA member institutions to participate in tournaments conducted in gambling casinos. This is the very environment we have been working so hard with Congress to change - the legal wagering on college sports in Nevada."

Chris Spencer, who is the organizer of the tournaments through his Worldwide Sports Inc. company, was bombarded with calls from the NCAA and coaches last week, and agreed to move the games to a non-casino site in Las Vegas.

The NCAA is obviously concerned that players might be approached to shave points. But what the NCAA may not realize is that these games will be taking place during football season, and hardly anyone will notice them. The tournaments are being brought here to give hotel guests another entertainment option, and to bring fans here during what are traditionally two of the slowest months for Vegas visitors - and not to boost betting handle.

Even though betting on UNLV and other college games in the state was legalized in February, Las Vegas sports books have voluntarily taken local events off the board, notably when the Los Angeles Lakers played exhibitions here.

"We don't have to bet on everything here," said John Avello, who runs the Paris sports books. "We have a lot of events here that have nothing to do with betting. We have the National Finals Rodeo and COMDEX, among others. It's a great convention town. Vegas is glad to have them. The betting has nothing to do with it."

It would seem that this controversy is more political than rational. After all, if the congressmen truly were so concerned about young people being exposed to the dangers of gambling, wouldn't they be worried about all the high school kids in Sin City this past week? I've seen some of them, wearing their lettermen's jackets, checking out the strip with their families and coaches.

College teams come to Las Vegas all the time, to play UNLV in football and basketball, or for the Mountain West Conference Tournament or the Las Vegas Bowl. They stay in hotel-casinos. They check out the nightlife. And the ones that are 21 even gamble. Obviously, coaches keep close tabs on their players, and incidents are kept to a minimum (and there are "temptations" for student-athletes in any city they visit).

You would have to say it's silly that the tournaments have to be moved at all at this late date. Spencer went through the appropriate channels and a person in authority at each school was notified that the games were being held at a hotel. And the Paris is constructed so that teams would be able to go from their hotel rooms to the convention center without passing through the casino.

But obviously, it's a different story in today's political climate.

Labriola wins handicapping event

Robert Labriola, of Richmond, Calif., won the $20,000 guaranteed first prize at the Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament last weekend.

The event drew 51 entrants, who paid $500 each. Players made 10 mythical $200 win-place-show bets each day of the two-day event. Labriola doubled his $12,000 bankroll into $24,412 to score a comfortable victory. Labriola is the brother of accomplished tournament player Mike Labriola.

Gordon Jones, host of the "Track Talk" out of Las Vegas, finished second with a bankroll of $17,170 and collected $5,100. Gary Templeton, of Bartlett, Tenn., was third with a bankroll of $16,160 and took home $2,040.