03/31/2010 11:00PM

Upsets good for fans, not bettors


What happened to the Madness?

It never ceases to amaze me how every year there is a frenzy leading up to the opening weekend of the NCAA men's basketball tournament in mid-March. There is nonstop analysis of who will make the tourney and who will be snubbed, the excitement of filling out the brackets, and the wall-to-wall basketball of the first two rounds, with buzzer-beaters and upsets galore.

Then just two weeks later, when the Final Four is set, there's a relative ho-hum attitude during the week. Sure, college basketball fans are still excited about the semifinals set for Saturday and the championship game Monday night, but it's not the same. It's anti-climactic in a lot of ways.

Upsets have defined this tournament, which has been good for bookmakers and underdog players. The opening Thursday, March 18, saw underdogs go 10-5-1 against the spread, with six outright upsets. Depending on when you bet the Northern Iowa-UNLV game, in which UNI was an underdog before closing as the favorite, and the Tennessee-San Diego St. game, which was 3 1/2 before closing at 3 and ending as a push, you could argue that dogs were as high as 12-4 against the spread.

No matter how many times the public sees upsets at tournament time and cheers for the underdog, when it's time to bet, they still mostly lay the points on the favorites.

Though there were still plenty of upsets along the way, underdogs were only 28-26-2 against the spread at the conclusion of the Sweet 16 round last Friday night, but they made a comeback over the weekend with Butler, West Virginia, and Michigan St. all pulling outright upsets in the regional finals over Kentucky, Kansas St., and Tennessee. With the final spot on the line Sunday afternoon, Duke came through for the favorite bettors and CBS as the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four.

With so many of the major-market teams and top seeds sitting back at home, the Final Four might not draw the biggest TV ratings, but it is an intriguing group. Three of the teams are from the power conferences - the Big East, ACC, and Big Ten - and there are three recognizable coaches in Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan St.'s Tom Izzo, and West Virginia's Bob Huggins. There is also the Cinderella/"Hoosiers" story of Butler, which is from the Horizon League and has a young coach in Brad Stevens.

People are drawing parallels between "Hoosiers" and Butler, because the state title game in the movie took place in Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Butler plays. But the Bulldogs were highly ranked all year and were a No. 5 seed, the same as their opponent, Michigan St. When Las Vegas Sports Consultants sent out its suggested line last Sunday, it made Butler a 1 1/2-point favorite, and that's pretty much where the line has stayed.

In the other semifinal, Duke opened as a 2-point favorite over West Virginia, and most books have moved it to 2 1/2. The totals on the two games are 126 and 131. Unders have a 33-27 edge so far in the tournament.

My top play on the weekend is West Virginia vs. Duke. I love how the Mountaineers play defense. I don't think they can take all the credit for Kentucky missing its first 20

3-point attempts and going 4 for 32 in the game, but their players' ability to challenge shots and cut off passing lanes certainly helped. They've carried the momentum from their Big East tournament sweep, and I think they get the job done Saturday night.

The Lucky's sports books in town have already posted lines on the four potential title games next Monday night. They have West Virginia -2 1/2 vs. Butler, West Virginia -3 vs. Michigan St., Duke -4 1/2 vs. Butler, and Duke -5 vs. Michigan St. My pick for the eventual matchup is West Virginia vs. Butler, and I'd be on the short "home" dog.

Lucky's future-book odds heading into the Final Four have Duke as the 13-10 favorite to win it all, with West Virginia 5-2, Butler 4-1, and Michigan St. 9-2. A cool feature of the Lucky's futures that a lot of books don't offer is that you can bet against each team: the "no" on each team is Duke -150, West Virginia -300, Butler -500, and Michigan St. -600.

Race and sports book notes

Two of the biggest Kentucky Derby preps are being run this weekend - the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita - and they're being headed by the two favorites in the Derby future book at Wynn Las Vegas. Lookin At Lucky, the 4-5 morning-line favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, is the 4-1 favorite in the Wynn's Derby futures heading into this weekend. Eskendereya, a 4-5 morning-line favorite in the Wood, is 5-1 at the Wynn. No other 3-year-olds are in single digits.

* The Major League Baseball season opens Sunday night with the Yankees visiting the Red Sox. And, as has been the case in recent years, they're both among the top contenders in the World Series future book. The Las Vegas Hilton has the Yankees as the 3-1 favorite, with the Red Sox and Phillies the co-second choices at 6-1. There's a dropoff to the Cardinals and Rays at 12-1, Cubs at 15-1, the White Sox and Braves at 20-1, and the Angels, Dodgers, Rangers and Rockies at 25-1.

* After Tiger Woods announced he was making his return at Augusta National, his odds to win the Masters were lowered to 4-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton, but it has been raised to 9-2 after betting on him cooled off. The Hilton offers odds of -600 if you want to take the field vs. Woods.