03/18/2005 1:00AM

Underdogs making noise early


LAS VEGAS - Dogs were barking as the began Thursday, when, even though only four of the 16 games were outright upsets, dogs went 9-7 against the spread against the closing numbers at the Stardust sports book.

And depending on when bettors put their money down on the Creighton-West Virginia game, some would argue that dogs were 10-6. West Virginia opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite when the opening lines were posted last Sunday and the line was bet to 2 1/2 early in the week. But, by Thursday morning, the line had dipped to 1 1/2 at the Stardust and as low as 1 at several sports book in town.

With the score tied, 61-61, and Creighton inbounding the ball with just over 10 seconds left, it looked great for the Blue Jays and all their backers regardless of the line they got. But then West Virginia's Tyrone Sally blocked Nate Funk's 3-point attempt and then finished the fast break with a dunk to give the Mountaineers a 63-61 lead with 2.9 seconds remaining. Creighton and its backers still had a chance, but Funk's 3-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark in the most exciting finish of the day, and March Madness bettors got a valuable lesson in getting the best possible line.

As a whole, bettors fared well Thursday, being on the right side of many games, though the books won the majority of the major decisions, including UAB's 82-68 upset of LSU, which was bet from a 3- to a 5-point favorite.

As for myself, my published bankroll plays went 4-2 with wins on Arizona -5 1/2 vs. Utah St., Winthrop +13 vs. Gonzaga, Creighton +2 1/2 vs. West Virginia, and Fairleigh Dickinson +27 vs. Illinois, and losses on Penn + 6 1/2 vs. Boston College and LSU -3 vs. UAB. My underdog plays were 3-1, and my chalk bets were only 1-1.

In my non-bankroll plays, I went 6-4. Again, I was better with underdogs, going 3-1 with dogs and 3-3 with favorites in this category.

I had a decent handle on these teams heading into Thursday, so hopefully I can keep it going in Saturday's second-round matchups. I like two favorites and two dogs.

At Indianapolis, Ind.

The first-round games for these two teams were very different. Cincinnati played about as well as it could play, building a 23-5 lead midway through the first half against Iowa. But as well as things were going, the Bearcats couldn't put the Hawkeyes away and saw their lead eventually shrink to 3 late in the second half before pulling away. Meanwhile, Kentucky didn't play its best, hitting only 2-of-11 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, yet it still held Eastern Kentucky at bay in a comfortable (albeit, a non-covering) 72-64 victory. Even when EKU pulled within 67-62 with 2:13 remaining, did anyone really doubt that the Wildcats would win? This looks like a case of one team with a lot of potential not needing to play its best to win (Kentucky) vs. a team that can play its best game and still struggle to get the victory (Cincy). I'll assume both teams will revert to their normal form - meaning the Wildcats should play better while the Bearcats won't perform as well as they did Thursday - and lay the short price with the favorite.

PLAY: Kentucky for 1 unit.

At Cleveland, Ohio

My biggest regret Thursday was not including UW-Milwaukee as a bankroll selection. My short comment in the list of other games was "The Crimson Tide doesn't have a deep bench and could have a problem keeping up with a pressing, fast-breaking, 3-point shooting UW-Milwaukee squad." I really don't know what kept me from using that game. But moving ahead, the Panthers are going to be hard-pressed to repeat that performance. This line appears short, and it's probably because the oddsmakers know the public has fallen in love with UW-Milwaukee. Boston College has a big edge inside, with a noticeable size advantage across the board, and if UW-Milwaukee doesn't hit its 3's again early, it won't be getting many second chances. BC's Craig Smith and Jared Dudley should be able to score at will and grind out a comfortable victory. This line actually opened with Boston College -2 1/2 at the Stardust and Caesars Palace, but only the quickest bettors got it before it got moved to 3. I have no problem laying that as it appears the money came in on the right side.

PLAY: Boston College for 1 unit.

At Tucson, Ariz.

Here's a case where I think the early money came in on the wrong side. This line opened Oklahoma -4 at the Stardust before being adjusted to 5, but I like the underdog. Oklahoma's 84-67 win over Niagara looked pretty impressive. The Sooners dominated after a slow start, pounding the ball inside against an overmatched Niagara team, but they won't have that luxury when facing Utah's Andrew Bogut, a 7-foot Australian import. Bogut at times was a one-man wrecking crew in Utah's 60-54 victory over UTEP, but his supporting cast also stepped up when needed. Utah plays as a team and also does the little things that can mean a lot in close ballgames, such as hitting 79 percent of their foul shots on the season. That came in handy Thursday, when the Utes were 4-for-4 from the line in the final minute. This game should come down to the wire, so I'll gladly take the points, especially since I have Utah making the Sweet 16 in my bracket (which, unfortunately, has already lost three Sweet 16 teams through Thursday's action).

PLAY: Utah for 1 unit.

At Tuscon, Ariz.

On Thursday, I went against Gonzaga with Winthrop +13 because I felt the line was inflated due to the public's love affair with the Zags. The public also likes to back Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight, but we're still getting enough value here to make a play. The Red Raiders should push the pace just like they did in their 78-66 victory over UCLA and Gonzaga might not be able to keep up. Again, before the tournament began, I had Texas Tech knocking off Gonzaga in this round, so I have to like the Red Raiders getting any points.

PLAY: Texas Tech for 1 unit.

The rest of Saturday's games

These are the other games Saturday that, for one reason or another, I just can't pull the trigger on (though I may as game-time approaches if the line moves in my favor):


Both teams were impressive in opening-round victories and the line looks just about right. Taking the points is tempting, but Washington could have just too much.


With the biggest point-spread on Saturday's card, my gut reaction was to take the dog, but when I wavered back and forth - due to Illinois' ability to make a run at any time - I knew I had to pass.


The same goes here, except I was closer to backing Arizona, which was my lone chalk bankroll winner Thursday. The Wildcats have the talent to win the title, but UAB has the look of a Sweet 16 Cinderella.


West Virginia impressed with its last-second win over Creighton, but it makes me wonder how much the Mountaineers will have left in the tank and if Wake Forest will wear them down late. Still, if the line moves to 10, I'll probably take a flyer.

Thursday's bankroll record: 4-2 for a net profit of 1.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Thursday's non-bankroll plays: 6-4. Overall tourney record: 10-7, including loss on Alabama A&M in Tuesday's play-in game.