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It’s not just Duke in Tobacco Road

Nov 9, 2004 6:35 AM


olks down in ACC country swear that their tournament is bigger than the Final Four. This season, it just may be.

"There’s no clear cut favorite to win the national championship, but the Atlantic Coast Conference will be by far the best," said John Harper, one of several college basketball analysts at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. "The league should have six of the nation’s top 20 ranked teams."

The season begins for some this Thursday with the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. The tourney begins at various sites around the country and ends eight days later at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The Garden is also the scene of the annual Big Apple Preseason NIT, which opens at various home sites Monday night and concludes Friday, Nov. 26. The majority of schools open play Saturday, Nov. 19.

Connecticut, the defending national champion, lost three starters including Omeka Okefur (top pick of the NBA Carolina Bobcats) and is not likely to head the list in preseason rankings. So who is?

"Wake Forest is picked in a few polls I’ve seen," Harper said. "I couldn’t give you a No. 1 pick, honestly because I don’t know. There are anywhere from 10 to 12 teams capable of winning the national championship. Plenty of balance, that’s for sure."

Harper did predict this season to be a very good year for bettors.

"There’s nothing exciting out there as far as dominant teams so bettors should be able to figure out some favorable lines," Harper said. "The NBA is not drained the talent pool at all. It should be a terrific year for college basketball."

The Las Vegas Hilton rates ACC rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina as 10-1 co-favorites to pull down the nets April 4 in St. Louis. Duke and Georgia Tech are tied for fifth at 15-1. Maryland and NC State are each 25-1, tied for 11th.

Player of the Year? Well, the one receiving the most hype is Wake Forest sophomore Chris Paul, a six-foot, 168-pound blazer, led the ACC last year in assists, was third in steals and hit nearly 47 percent from 3-point land.

One of the big surprises could come right here in Vegas, where Lon Kruger takes over at UNLV. The Running Rebels have faded badly since the days of Jerry Tarkanian over a decade ago, but Kruger is a proven winner and may truly be the one to rekindle the excitement at the Thomas & Mack.

"I think UNLV got it right with the appointment of Kruger," Harper said. "He was successful coaching Pan American, Kansas State, Illinois and Florida. Kruger also has NBA experience with the Atlanta Hawks. He’s a nice guy, who knows how to win and is a player’s coach. "A lot of people think UNLV did well hiring him."

Conferences that may take a step back this year include the Big Ten and Pac 10.

"I think Arizona and Washington will emerge as the two best out of the Pac 10," Harper said. "Arizona has great talent. The rest of the league, though, is not that strong."

Washington is rated a 60-1 longshot at the Hilton, but is ranked No. 13 in the Blue Ribbon College Basketball preseason poll and LVSC books the Huskies as just a 25-1 shot. Arizona is 12-1 at LVSC and 20-1 at the Hilton.

A good barometer to use at the start of any college basketball season is how the teams fared the year before straight-up and against the spread both home and away. Here are some of the best and worst from this past season.

Thumbs up ATS: Alabama 20-10, Boise State 20-11, Columbia 14-6, DePaul 20-11, Miss State 17-9, Stanford 21-10, W. Michigan 22-8, Xavier 22-14.

Thumbs down: Arizona State 5-19, C. Michigan 10-19, Cleveland State 6-17, Fla International 5-14, LaSalle 9-16, St. Bonaventure 8-19, San Francisco 9-17, Tulsa 7-17.

Home studs SU: Memphis 13-0, BYU 11-0, Cincinnati 16-1, Arizona 12-2, Air Force 8-1, Kansas 14-1, Iowa State 14-1, Southern Illinois 13-1

Duds: Baylor 2-8, Cleveland State 0-11, Fla International 1-8, St. John’s 3-11,

Away studs SU: St. Joseph’s 14-0, Miss State 12-0, Gonzaga 12-1, Stanford 10-1, Utah State 10-2, Pittsburgh 8-2, Princeton 9-4.

Duds: Ohio 0-13, San Diego 0-15, Clemson 0-11, Cleveland State 0-11, St. John’s 0-10, C. Michigan 1-13, William & Mary 1-12, Fordham 1-13, Tennessee 1-10.