Apr 2, 2002 10:20 AM

The NCAA tournament is done and Duke will have cost thousands of people across the country a chance to win office contests, friendly bets or serious money at the sports books.

Blame Indiana for that.

The “Who-siers” became this year’s version of Cinderella that cost at least 50 percent of the 300 entrants in the Wild Wild West ­­Basketball Contest to see their brackets fall completely out of whack.

    For those that picked Indiana to face Maryland in Monday night’s national title game, congratulations. For everyone else, it’s wait until next year. The countdown to March Madness has already begun.

“There’s nothing quite like the excitement of the NCAA Tournament, especially the ­­Final Four,” said Chris Davis, the sports book director at Wild Wild West. “Our contest was really successful. I didn’t know how many entrants we would draw, but to have 300 is wonderful. We will do it up even better next year.”

The Wild West contest was one of several that took place over the course of the past three weeks. Some, like those run by Park Place Entertainment, involved picking all the games against the spread. Others like the Ramport, formerly the Regent-Las Vegas in Summerlin, opted for a competition that ended with the Round of 16.

Even, women’s basketball made a dent in the odds with Connecticut completing a 39-0 season by defeating Oklahoma in Sunday night’s national final in San Antonio. The Huskies won all but one game this year by double-digits, yet failed to cover the 13½-point line against the inspired Sooners.

“It wasn’t the first time women’s basketball has had lines out for the tourney,” Davis said. “Really, I can remember odds for at least five years and maybe as far back as seven in town. But, I do think there was more interest this year.”

Naturally, to spoil the mood, both ESPN and the FX network decided to focus on the fixing of several college basketball games at Arizona State. ESPN chose its Outside the Lines to dissect the illegal activity, while FX promoted its movie about the incident that aired twice Sunday night.

The fixing of basketball games is often blamed on Las Vegas taking bets and sending odds through Las Vegas Sports Consultants or various casino books for newspapers across the country to print and media to talk into the ground.

This in turn causes the NCAA and more than a few ignorant politicians to call for the abolition of gambling on college sports. It’s worth noting that the nearly successful fixing operation at Arizona State would have succeeded had the Vegas books not cooperated with the authorities.

When a line moves from 11 points down to three, an alarm should go off. Gaming should be congratulated and not scolded for ending the mess at ASU. The very fact that there is a Nevada Gaming Board and limits placed on bets shows that there is control and fairness to gambling in Las Vegas.

The house may always win, but the bettor at least is given a fair shot. That’s more than anyone can say about the illegal operations that go on all across the country involving campus books, greedy ballplayers and seedy individuals looking to make a quick fortune at the expense of others.

March Madness is something everyone looks forward to with a passion in Las Vegas. Only the NFL and college football generates the action that college hoops does for one glorious month. While offshore books promise benefits to bettors and easy ways to place bets, Las Vegas gives everyone the opportunity to place a bet themselves and get the money up front with no questions asked.

“Everything else takes a backseat to March Madness,” John Avello, race and sports ­­director at Bally’s/Paris Las Vegas said during a recent ­­interview. “Nobody was talking baseball.”

Well, baseball had its Opening Day on Sunday night and Avello was right. The game was hardly noticed. But, it was a lot better than the FX movie.