03/25/2005 12:00AM

Viewers get only half the drama


LAS VEGAS - The officials who arranged the order of Thursday night's action had to be kicking themselves.

The early games were rarely in doubt as Illinois defeated Wisconsin-Milwaukee 77-63 in Chicago and Louisville was pretty much in control during its 93-79 win over Washington in Albuquerque, N.M. The only thing in doubt in either game was whether Illinois would cover the 10 1/2-point spread.

But in the nightcaps of both regionals, West Virginia outlasted Texas Tech 65-60 in Albuquerque in a game that went down to the final minute (especially with Texas Tech closing as a 1 1/2- to 2-point favorite and the potential to go to overtime, which would have also helped those who bet over 141 points), plus the game of the night as Arizona outlasted Oklahoma St. 79-78 in Chicago. That game wasn't decided until OSU's John Lucas missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that sports books here in Vegas had had either team favored by 1 point earlier in the week. It really could have gone either way.

Network executive had to be wishing one of the regionals had been flipped, or that they had staggered their starting times better.

Anyway, as it was, favorites and underdogs went 2-2 on the night and so did over/under, with the Illinois game being only the 10th of the tournament so far (out of 53 total games) to hit with the popular favorite/over parlay. Overall, favorites and dogs are split 26-26-1 through Thursday's action, with the under holding a 30-23 (57 percent) edge.

As for my selections, I was clearly on the wrong side of the Louisville-Washington game and also lost with Oklahoma St. in a game that could have gone either way. That dropped my tournament bankroll plays to 11-9-1 (55 percent), but hopefully I learned something while looking ahead to Saturday's matchups.

1:40 a.m. at Albuquerque, N.M.

On the surface, I hate doing this. I'm rarely like betting favorites, and especially big chalk like the Cardinals have been installed here. I also don't like when I lose a bet by going against a team and then find myself jumping on the bandwagon of the team that beat me. That usually means I'm laying too many points. However, I'm going to go against my better judgment and back Louisville here. The win over Washington really showed me something. Rick Pitino really has the Conference USA champs playing great basketball at the right time of year, just like Denny Crum used to do. I really thought Washington could hang with them, but I don't feel the same with Mountaineers of West Virginia, who have been just getting by in their victories while the Cardinals have been dominant and look to be on a mission. The only thing that would make me pass is if the late injury to Taquan Dean (twisted ankle and a leg cramp with 4:03 to play) ends up being more serious than originally thought. Otherwise, I see the Cardinals rolling to the Final Four. This line opened at -9 on Thursday night at many books and has been bet to 8 1/2 as of Friday morning, but I'm going the other way.

PLAY: Louisville for 1 unit.

4:05 p.m. at Chicago

As I watched Arizona and Oklahoma St. battle down to the wire, I knew I'd be taking the points vs. Illinois with whichever team survived. Frankly, even though Illinois pretty much coasted to its victory, I was afraid that oddsmakers would make this line even shorter as Arizona continued to impress. The Wildcats looked like they might blow out the Cowboys early on until Salim Stoudamire got into foul trouble. And even though that let Oklahoma St. to get back in the game, the rest of the Arizona squad, especially Hassan Adams stepped up and help keep a 41-38 halftime lead. That allowed Stoudamire to be around in crunch time, and he delivered in the clutch with the game-winner with 2.8 seconds remaining. The line on this game opened at Illinois -4 1/2 at some books and -5 1/2 at others on Thursday night, but by Friday morning the line had settled at 5. Both these teams have good balance inside and outside, but basically it comes down to that I would prefer Arizona's Channing Frye over Illinois' James Augustine and the combination of Stoudamire and Adams over the Illini guards. Getting the points are a bonus in what should be a close game with a lot of runs back and forth.

PLAY: Arizona for 1 unit.

Thursday's bankroll plays: 0-2. Overall tournament bankroll record: 11-9-1 (55 percent) for a net profit of 1.1 units. Selections on all tournament games through Thursday: 27-24-2 (53 percent).