03/20/2007 12:00AM

USC two-unit play vs. Tar Heels


LAS VEGAS - ESPN had a daily behind-the-scenes look at the Wisconsin men's basketball team last week as it played in the Midwest Regional in Chicago. One of the interesting segments showed the players doing homework and having a hard time focusing because their game plans were foremost in their minds.

Well, the Badgers have plenty of time to concentrate on their studies after losing to UNLV on Sunday. As a handicapper, I also had to go back to school after my record of 6-10 against the spread over the first days of the tournament, including 0-1 on my sole 2-unit play, for a net loss of 6.1 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1.)

Unlike the Badgers, we get to keep playing, and I think I've found two underdogs and two favorites in the games this Thursday and Friday. Three of the bankroll plays are on Thursday, and just one on Friday. I'll go with 2-unit plays on the two underdogs.

Just like last week, my selections for Saturday and Sunday's regional finals will be available at the drf.com website the day before tipoff.

Southern Illinois +8 1/2 vs. Kansas

7:10 p.m. Thursday at San Jose

Kansas is clearly one of deepest and most talented teams in the country - there's certainly no getting around that - but SIU is one of the most solid teams that many people haven't heard of, or at least not until last weekend, and even then they weren't involved in one of the sexier matchups. The Salukis epitomize the meaning of the word team, as they play together on both ends of the court as well as anyone else and certainly can fill it up from beyond the 3-point arc. The Salukis play solid defense and are experienced enough that they're not going to be intimidated by Kansas. SIU also performs well as an underdog and in unfamiliar surroundings, going 60-40 as an underdog against the spread since 1997, according to statfox.com (the source for all betting stats in this column), 26-14 against the spread in road games against teams with winning records the past three seasons, and 10-3 against the spread in non-conference games this year. I look for the Salukis to stay well inside the number with a chance to pull the outright upset.

PLAY: Southern Illinois for 2 units.

Texas A&M -3 vs. Memphis

7:25 p.m. Thursday at San Antonio

I was hoping to make this a big upset special pick with No. 3 seed Texas A&M taking on No. 2 seed Memphis, but the oddsmakers certainly weren't fooled as they made the Aggies a small favorite. Also factored into the number is the questionable status of Memphis star Chris Douglas-Roberts. After winning and covering in the first-round game vs. Pennsylvania, Texas A&M was impressive in beating Louisville in Lexington, Ky., and now the Aggies get to play the rest of the regional in San Antonio. Memphis has a lot of quick players and can match up with Texas A&M in the backcourt, but I see the Aggies controlling the action in the paint and on the boards. I'd prefer to be getting some points, but I'll lay the short price with confidence.

PLAY: Texas A&M for 1 unit.

UCLA -3 vs. Pittsburgh

9:40 p.m. Thursday at San Jose

In a lot of ways, these two teams are mirror images of each other, which isn't surprising since Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon was an assistant under UCLA's Ben Howland, at Northern Arizona and then at Pittsburgh before Howland left for UCLA four years ago. Now the teacher and the protege meet for the first time with an Elite Eight berth on the line. While the teams are similar, UCLA has several edges, including a home-state advantage of playing in San Jose while Pitt has to travel west. Plus the Bruins are stronger in the backcourt with Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison. Aaron Gray gives Pitt the edge on the front line, but I'm confident Howland will devise a game plan to limit his effectiveness with team defense. The only concern is that UCLA makes only 67 percent of its free throws, so that could cost the Bruins (and a potential point-spread cover) late in the game. Pitt also makes 67 percent from the line, so this could get ugly if it turns into a foul-fest late.

PLAY: UCLA for 1 unit.

USC +8 1/2 vs. North Carolina

9:55 p.m. Friday at East Rutherford, N.J.

The Tar Heels probably have the most individual talent in the country, but they often fall short as a team, especially on the defensive end, when they face what they must consider inferior competition. USC, on the other hand, has risen to the level of it competition, going 20-6 against the spread when playing a team with a winning record this year and 8-1 against the spread versus teams with a win percentage of 80 percent or better. The Trojans also play solid defense, which isn't often said of West Coast teams. USC center Taj Gibson continues to improve and should be out to make a name for himself versus North Carolina's Tyler Hansborough. I was afraid this line would come up shorter after No.o5 USC dominated No. 4 Texas and Kevin Durant on Sunday, but I'm pleasantly surprised to get so many points. And I won't hesitate to take the Trojans on the money line, too.

PLAY: USC for 2 units.

Here's my leans on the other other four regional semifinals:

* Tennessee +4 vs. Ohio St.

* Florida -10 1/2 vs. Butler

* Vanderbilt +7 1/2 vs. Georgetown

* Oregon -2 1/2 vs. UNLV