Woo hoo! March Madness is finally here!

Conference championship week is the week that gives almost every Division I men's basketball team in the country a chance to make it to the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament. The conference tournaments offer unique handicapping opportunities because of the unusual number of games a team must play in a short period.

The teams that already are guaranteed a spot in the Big Dance (i.e., the top 25 power-rated teams) have far less incentive in these tournaments than their opponents, particularly the opponents that are on the

NCAA

bubble. Depth is a critical factor in handicapping these games.

A team like

Southern California

is very fortunate that the

Pac-10

does not have a tournament, because its starters average 35 to 40 minutes of playing time a game. A team like that will find it extremely difficult to play three or four games on consecutive nights. Teams that have a bye in the first round hold a huge advantage.

To handicap successfully, check out the detailed box scores that appear many places on the Net. Look for how many minutes the five key players have played. Teams that have enough good bench players to permit the starters to play less than 30 minutes in a game have a big advantage in the conference tournaments.

Let's look at how teams that are underdogs have done in conference tournaments over the last four years:

Underdogs don't do particularly well in these conference tournaments, although they perform at just about a .500 level in the semifinals and finals.

The location of the conference tournament also offers us some interesting betting angles. When one of the conference teams hosts a tournament, the host has a big advantage in the first two rounds of the tournament. That edge disappears as the other teams get acclimated to the court and, in the semifinal and final rounds, there is no advantage for the home team.

Poor road performance yields yet another advantage. Teams that fail to get the job done on the road ought to be considered go-against sides in conference tournaments.

Does the revenge angle play any part in conference tournaments? Yes and no. A favorite (SU) that has lost straight up to its opponent during the regular season has covered the spread at a rate of 58% in the last four years. Favorites that have lost twice to their opponent during the regular season cover the spread only 41% of the time. Underdogs that try to avenge a single regular-season defeat cover at a 44% rate, and underdogs that try to avenge two regular-season losses cover only 42% of the time. The lesson: Bet on single avenging favorites and favorites that have beaten their opponent during the regular season.

Here is this week's power ratings for Lieberman's Top 25:

This weekend, there are four matchups between top 25 teams. All take place on Saturday. A noon EST game televised by

CBS

has

Kentucky

hosting

Florida

. The Wildcats should be about a 2 1/2 point favorite over the Gators. If I can get four or more points, I will be betting on Florida.

Also on CBS,

Connecticut

will host

Syracuse

in a game that is far more important to UConn than the Orangemen. If the Huskies lose this game and then lose in the

Big East

tournament, they may not make it to the Big Dance. The Huskies should be about a 2 1/2-point favorite over the Orangemen. If the line is 3 or less, I will be making a play on the Huskies.

Duke

hosts

North Carolina

in an

ABC

nationally televised game. The Dukies will be about a 10 1/2 point favorite. If I can get 12 points or more, I will be betting on the Tar Heels. Otherwise, I will be passing on the game.

Finally,

Oklahoma State

hosts

Oklahoma

in the second meeting of the "Bedlam Series" this season, which can be seen on

ESPN

. In the first game, the underdog Cowboys easily beat the Sooners. The line on this game should be Oklahoma State minus 9. I will take the Cowboys if the line is 6 or less and will be on the Sooners if the line is 12 or more.

As a result of last week's

poll we will have a special Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning column, which looks at the conference tournaments taking place next week.

See you then.