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N. Carolina favored by oddsmakers

NEW YORK -- The University of North Carolina, which received a No. 1 seed for the fifth straight year, is favored by Las Vegas oddsmakers to win the men's college basketball championship for a fifth time.

The Tar Heels (28-4) enter the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament as 2-1 favorites to win the title on April 6 in Detroit, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which advises Nevada sports books on betting lines.

North Carolina, which ranks second in college basketball history with 1,978 wins, started and ended the season as the top team in the polls. The Tar Heels are led by two players who bypassed the National Basketball Association to try to win a championship — forward Tyler Hansbrough, the 2008 national player of the year, and point guard Ty Lawson, who this season was voted the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year.

“All season, from before the first game was played until now, North Carolina has had the highest power rating amongst all teams,” Jeff Sherman, assistant manager for the Hilton Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas, said in a telephone interview. “They're still the team to beat.”

Pittsburgh, which has a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, has odds of 4-1 to win the tournament, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Louisville, given the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament by the NCAA selection committee, is the third favorite at 9-2, followed by Connecticut at 5-1.

RJ Bell, president of the handicapping information Web site Pregame.com, estimates that more than US$12 billion will be wagered on the 64 games of the NCAA tournament. It starts with tomorrow's play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, and culminates with the Final Four at Detroit's Ford Field on April 4 and 6.

North Carolina, which lost to eventual champion Kansas at the Final Four last season, opens its tournament run on March 17 against Big South Conference-winner Radford. The Tar Heels would face Louisiana State or Butler in the second round.

Other teams in North Carolina's region are No. 2 Oklahoma, which is led by this season's player of the year favorite Blake Griffin; No. 3 Syracuse, which played seven overtime periods in reaching the final of the Big East tournament; and No. 4 Gonzaga, which has made 10 straight NCAA trips without advancing past the final eight.

“Looking at the brackets it seems they have the least challenging region compared to other highly-ranked teams,” said Sherman, who lists the Tar Heels as the 4-1 favorites at the Hilton. North Carolina's odds are “by no means prohibitive but they most definitely are the starting point.”

While Louisville (28-5) is the overall No. 1 seed, analysts said the Cardinals face a tough route to the Final Four out of a deep 16-team Midwest Regional.

“It's prestigious, but the No. 1 overall seed, it's not winning you any games,” CBS basketball analyst Clark Kellogg said during a conference call.

Michigan State is the second seed in the Midwest after winning the Big Ten regular-season title, while defending national champion Kansas is seeded third. Wake Forest, which started the season with 16 straight wins and was ranked No. 1 in January, is seeded fourth in the regional.

Not all Las Vegas sports books have North Carolina as the favorite to add to its 1957, 1982, 1993 and 2005 titles.

Jay Rood of the MGM Mirage and Sports Book in Las Vegas prefers the overall strength of the Big East Conference, which grabbed three of the four No. 1 seeds, and said North Carolina may be hurt by a foot injury that kept Lawson out for two games in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Pittsburgh and Louisville are 4-1 co-favorites at the MGM Mirage, while North Carolina is next at 5-1. The Tar Heels have a 6-4 record this season against teams in the tournament.

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