Mar 13, 2001 8:32 AM

"It’s the same as college football shortly before the bowl games. If you take every one (underdog), you should make money. This does take the fun out of it because there is no handicapping involved. The fact is, a lot of (higher-seeded) teams have a big lead and then back off because they know they have so many games left to get to the finals."

The underdog strategy has held its own: a 48-48 record in the opening rounds of the past three seasons; 16-16 last year. Although it hasn’t been profitable for the past three seasons, several bettors aren’t going to pass it up before this year’s first round.

"There are a lot of overlays (for the favorite) on opening day," one bettor said. "People push up underdogs."

Besides that underdog strategy, another bettor pointed out the straight-up road record theory. In March 1998, Kentucky and Utah had the best straight-up road records during the regular season. Each advanced to the NCAA finals, with favored Kentucky winning. Ditto 1999, as Connecticut and Duke were the top two straight-up road teams in that order for the regular season. Underdog Connecticut went on to claim the title.

Another strategy is taking the No. 11 seed vs. the No. 6 seed for the first-round in all four regional brackets.

"You normally see the 11s knock out the 6s in that situation and the 10s knocking off the 7s," said Micah Roberts, race and sports book manager at Santa Fe Station. "Some of the more popular teams get in (as a higher seed), and teams that aren’t on TV as much get overlooked. They (the higher seeds) get it handed to them because they’re not taking these (lower-seeded) teams seriously.

"You always see these match-ups. This is a popular one, with the No. 6 being (ranked) considerably (higher) over the No. 11."

Although the 6 vs. 11 strategy is one Roberts often notices, he notes that other strategies — blocked shots, steals and assist-to-turnover ratio — could be played from the first round on. Last year, in the four first-round match-ups, the No. 6 team went 3-1 straight up over No. 11.

Most bettors expressed interest in playing the entire tournament. One sports book director pointed out that such factors as conference strength and team match-ups have to be considered after the opening round. But caution is advised.

"For the quarters, you’d think the better teams are going to get there," said the anonymous director, "but this is not necessarily true for the last few years. The problem (for bettors) is, there’s a lot of parity."

Another problem is some strategies — like the underdog, regular season road record and No. 6 vs. No. 11 — weren’t profitable last March. That fact, according to one sports book director, shouldn’t drive sensible bettors away from a strategy that costs them nothing to use.

"Just look at the Web sites (of professional handicappers)," said the director. "Few of them are hardly winning."