03/13/2007 11:00PM

Tourney's second day a whole new ballgame

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With all due respect to Tuesday's play-in game, the NCAA tournament begins on Thursday in most people's minds. But for many teams, Friday is the first day of the NCAA tournament.

Call them 1 and 1A.

No matter what happens on Thursday, Friday has to be viewed as its own entity, especially for bettors. If you had a losing day Thursday, you have to put that in the past. If you had a winning day, you can't rest on your laurels.

Here's a look at five of Friday's 16 games, listed in betting rotation order (all times are Eastern). I'll give the reasons I like my selections, including the matchups on the court and the analysis of trends and situations.

Albany (+7 1/2) vs. Virginia

12:15 p.m., at Columbus, Ohio

Albany has a lot of players back from last year's team that nearly became the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 (the Great Danes led UConn with 11 minutes to play), and that experience should help them against a Virginia team with no NCAA experience. Both teams have great backcourts - with Albany's Jamar Wilson and Jason Siggers capable of hanging with Virginia's Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds - but unlike a lot of major conference vs. mid-major matchups, the Cavaliers don't have a front line that overpowers the smaller school. Albany is not a regular betting board team, but they were 2-0 against the spread this year with a 1-point loss to Boise St. as a 10-point underdog and a 1-point victory over Vermont in the America East title game as a 5-point dog. According to Statfox.com (the source for most of the betting stats in this column), Albany is 6-0 against the spread in its last six boarded games. In my bracket, I made Albany my lowest seed to pull an outright upset, but even if Albany falls short again this year, I believe it will stay within the number, and I will make this my first 2-unit play of the tournament.

PLAY: Albany for 2 units.

Creighton (+1) vs. Nevada

3 p.m., at New Orleans

Nick Fazekas carries Nevada on his capable shoulders, but the better overall team here, especially in the backcourt with Nate Funk, is Creighton. Creighton also is more battle-tested, having played in the Missouri Valley Conference, which is stronger top to bottom than the Western Athletic Coast Conference. Furthermore, the Bluejays rise to the level of the competition. Creighton is 17-9 against the spread vs. teams with winning records this year, including 12-2 the second half of the season and 15-3 against the spread vs. top-level teams (considered to be teams with a winning percentage of 80 percent or better) over the past three seasons.

PLAY: Creighton for 1 unit.

Niagara (+19) vs. Kansas

7:10 p.m., at Chicago

I watched the play-in with keen interest as Las Vegas Sports Consultants' Kenny White had told me Sunday night that he felt Niagara was "the best 16 seed ever." The Purple Eagles looked like that early as they jumped out to a big lead on Florida A&M and I was afraid I might lose some betting value if they completed a blowout, but they allowed Florida A&M back in and ended up getting back-doored with the 8-point victory as 9-point favorites. I'm not as confident about the prospects of an outright upset as I was in the two above games (mainly because Kansas has a big edge in the paint), but Niagara should be pesky enough to stay within this big number.

PLAY: Niagara for 1 unit.

Notre Dame (-4) vs. Winthrop

2:35 p.m., at Spokane, Wash.

This pick will probably surprise a lot of people: First because I'm laying more than a basket with a favorite, but also because a lot - and I mean a lot - of experts have made Winthrop their top upset pick in the opening round. CBS's Billy Packer called Winthrop this year's George Mason, LVSC's White continues speaking highly of the Eagles, and countless other people on the ESPN networks and local radio stations have echoed those sentiments. Of course, people that know me as a contrarian won't be as surprised, and that's what got me looking at the other side. Notre Dame will have the best player on the floor in Russell Carter, but what makes the Irish a more complete team has been the improvement of point guard Tory Jackson. Winthrop played a tough nonconference schedule, but Notre Dame has been getting better vs. the Big East. I like that edge. Besides, it's not St. Patrick's Day, but Notre Dame is 7-2 in its closest game to the holiday (that's my own stat) since 1992, and I'm not about to buck the luck of the Irish.

PLAY: Notre Dame for 1 unit.

USC (-1 1/2) vs. Arkansas

9:55 p.m., at Spokane, Wash.

This line also came a little short, partly because of the public's knowledge of the frequent upsets in these No. 5 vs. 12 matchups, but I'll take the value on USC with Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt leading the way. The Trojans actually play defense, which is a common knock against West Coast teams. Arkansas has received a lot of criticism as to whether it's worthy of being in the field, and my only reservation with this pick is that those teams seem to get motivated by that kind of talk and vindicate the selection committee. But I'll stick with my gut instinct. In addition, USC has one of the country's best spread records at 19-10.

PLAY: USC for 1 unit.

Here are my leans for the other 11 games on Friday, again listed in rotation order:

Illinois +2 1/2 vs. Virginia Tech

Holy Cross +7 vs. Southern Illinois

Long Beach St. +7 vs. Tennessee

Georgia Tech -1 1/2 vs. UNLV

Wisconsin -13 vs. Texas A&M CC

Villanova -1 vs. Kentucky

Florida -28 vs. Jackson St.

Arizona -2 vs. Purdue

Memphis -18 vs. North Texas

Miami-Ohio +9 vs. Oregon

New Mexico St. +9 vs. Texas