12/21/2006 1:00AM

Wichita St. heads Las Vegas Classic


A day doesn't go by when someone doesn't ask me about the Las Vegas Invitational last month at the Orleans Arena when Kansas upset defending champion and No. 1-ranked Florida.

There are a lot of people around here who long for the glory days of the UNLV basketball program. The Runnin' Rebels are off to a 10-2 start, including an upset of in-state rival and No. 20-ranked Nevada, UNLV's first win on the road over a ranked team in 15 years. However, for many, that Florida-Kansas game was this year's highlight of the local basketball scene. Next year's highlight is expected to be the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 18 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Another holiday tournament is in town this weekend, the fifth annual Las Vegas Classic, also at the Orleans Arena. None of the teams offer the marquee value of Florida or Kansas, but Wichita St. is ranked No.o8 after wins over ranked teams such as LSU and Syracuse and a victory over George Mason, last year's Cinderella team. USC, New Mexico, and Kansas St. also bring name recognition.

The other teams in the tournament are much more obscure: Longwood, Kennesaw, Charleston Southern, and Maryland Eastern Shore. The first two rounds of the tournament were held at campus sites - and no one will be surprised that the top four schools hosted and won all eight games - and the last two rounds will be held Friday and Saturday at the Orleans Arena.

On Friday, Charleston Southern plays Longwood at noon, Maryland Eastern Shore plays Kennesaw at 2:30 p.m., Kansas St. plays USC at 5op.m. and New Mexico plays Wichita St. at 7:30 p.m. Betting lines will be available for the last two games.

Then, on Saturday, the losers of the first two games will meet at noon, the winners of the first two games will play at 2:30 p.m., the losers of the semifinals will play at 5op.m. and the winners of the semifinals - dare we predict it will be Wichita St. vs. USC? - will play at 7:30 p.m. for the Las Vegas Classic trophy.

Tickets are priced at $116, $84, $63, and $42 and are for admittance to all eight game. No single-game tickets are available. See orleansarena.com for full details.

UNLV also getting exposure

This isn't to say that UNLV is getting ignored as the Rebels' bandwagon is filling up after its impressive start. This up-and-coming team will certainly get its chance in the spotlight next week when it travels to Texas Tech.

That would normally be a non-descript non-conference game in the middle of Christmas break, but it takes on significance as Tech coach Bobby Knight is on the verge of passing Dean Smith on the Division I coaching all-time wins list. Knight is one win behind Smith heading into Saturday's game vs. Bucknell. Assuming a win over that unranked foe, Knight would then attempt to break the record against UNLV on Thursday night. That game will be shown live on ESPN, so win or lose, it will bring great exposure to the UNLV program, and it can only be enhanced if the Rebels pull off the upset - or at least play well on the national stage. It can be argued that a win in such a game would enhance UNLV's chances as a bubble team in the NCAA tournament, even if the Rebels don't win the Mountain West Conference tournament, which UNLV will also host.

College football picks

Moving to college football, here's a look at the games I like through the middle of next week. I'll tackle the following week's games in next Friday's column.

East Carolina (+4) vs. South Florida

Dec. 23: Papajohns.com Bowl

Skip Holtz has the East Carolina program headed in the right direction in only his second year as head coach, and I think he will have the Pirates ready for this game. East Carolina's offense has been steady this season, but against South Florida's hit-or-miss blitzes, that could open up some big plays for the Pirates. I also think the East Carolina defense can control the line of scrimmage and hold down the Bulls' offense, which has a tendency to stop itself with penalties and turnovers, leading Conference USA in both categories. South Florida is coming off a huge upset of West Virginia, so I can't see them getting up for this game the same way they did four weeks earlier. This game opened 3 1/2 points and is up to 4, so I'll gladly take the extra half-point, as you never know when it's going to come into play.

PLAY: East Carolina for 1 unit.

San Jose St. (+3 1/2) vs. New Mexico

Dec. 23: New Mexico Bowl

This line has moved the other way, opening at 4 1/2 and 5 at most books and is now down to 3 1/2, but I still like the San Jose St. side. It looks like the oddsmakers have given New Mexico a few two many points for home-field advantage, but I'm not impressed with the Lobos. San Jose St.'s body of work looks more impressive to me, including a 23-20 loss to undefeated Boise St. I'll also take the team with the better quarterback - Adam Tafralis, who will be facing a pass defense that ranks No. 102 in the country.

PLAY: San Jose St. for 1 unit.

Middle Tennessee St. (+10)

vs. Central. Michigan

Dec. 25: Motor City Bowl

This is a game of contrasting styles as Central Michigan attacks through the air while Middle Tennessee St. does its damage on the ground. I'll side with the running team, which used a running-back-by-committee with Eugene Gross, DeMarco McNair, and Desmond Gee combined for over 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns - that also has the edge on defense and is getting double digits.

PLAY: Middle Tenn. St. for 1 unit.

Kansas St. (+7 1/2) vs. Rutgers

Dec. 28: Texas Bowl

Rutgers has been one of the feel-good stories of this season, but after being on such a high, it'll be interesting to see how motivated they get for the Texas Bowl after having bigger dreams. Kansas St. has been rather inconsistent all season long, but the one game that stands out is a 45-42 upset of Texas as 16-point underdogs. There's no doubt everyone thought the Wildcats would roll over against the mighty Longhorns, and they used it for an inspired performance. After playing second fiddle all bowl week to Rutgers, I think Kansas St. will step up again.

PLAY: Kansas St. for 1 unit.

Regular-season college bankroll record: 39-37-1, including 2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net loss of 0.8 units.