You see, LA

Mar 19, 2002 9:02 AM

Home cooking has been much appreciated through two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, so UCLA should be delighted to head into San Jose for a possible ticket to the Final Four.

The Bruins kept a 21-year streak intact by eliminating Cincinnati in a classic double-overtime struggle, 105-101. The loss meant that at least one No. 1 seed has failed to reach the national semifinals since 1980.

As for the other three top-seeds (Duke, Kansas and Maryland), they are part of a Sweet 16 that also includes a few Cinderellas. The biggest surprise might be Southern Illinois, the 11-seed in the East, which ousted Texas Tech and Georgia. The Salukis were aided by having both contests played in Chicago, though a ­­seven-hour trip from Carbondale.

Pittsburgh, the third seed in the South, played its first two tourney games on its homecourt at the Mellon Arena. That won’t be the case ­­Friday when the Panthers face Kent State in Lexington, Kentucky.

Kent State, the No. 10 seed, upset Oklahoma State and No. 2 seed Alabama to earn its date with Pitt. Seeing Kent in the Sweet 16 has to be good news for bettors, who were advised manytimes that this was the best team in the country (18-6-1) in covering point spreads during the regular season.

The most dangerous of the lower seeded teams could be Missouri. The 12th-seeded ­­Tigers played their best basketball of the season in wins over Miami and Ohio State.

“There’s no question that teams able to play at home or close to home had a big advantage,” said Jason Been, oddsmaker at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. “It played a role in how we seeded certain games.”

There was much surprise around the country, mostly from radio talk show hosts, when Texas was rated as a one-point favorite over Mississippi State, even though the Longhorns were the lower seed.  Texas beat the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs in the Midwest.

“I think the guys here are pretty thrilled with the way things have turned out in the tournament thus far,” Been said. “It seems to be setting up well for the remaining No. 1 seeds. We like Maryland, Kansas and Duke to make it to the Final Four. Duke seems to have the easiest road.”

The Blue Devils survived a major scare in the South with their narrow win over Notre Dame. When Duke has been in distress, erratic foul shooting has been a major reason.

“Duke is a double-digit favorite against anyone in its region,” Been said. “They would be a bigger favorite against Kent State than Pittsburgh in the next round.”

The West features the best matchup in the tourney thus far when No. 2 seed Oklahoma tangles with No. 3 Arizona. Another interesting encounter will be the Kansas-Illinois battle in the Midwest.

“That should be a heck of a game,” Been said. “I think that will be a shootout. It could turn into a track meet. Illinois has been a question mark all year, but is playing well now.”

Our bracket is basically intact, so we’ll stick with Maryland, Oregon, Duke and Oklahoma to advance to the Final Four, with Maryland defeating Oklahoma for the NCAA title.