ST. LOUIS - The University of Cincinnati started its postseason with a backcourt full of blues.
One point guard was indisposed when the Bearcats began the Conference USA Tournament Thursday night, and another was incognito. Charles Williams was home, his late-breaking eligibility questions still unresolved. Damon Flint was in uniform, but wore tinted glasses to shield a scratch on his right eye.
UC routed St. Louis anyway. For some college basketball powers, it's still what's up front that counts.
Behind Ruben Patterson's skillful maneuvering and Danny Fortson's muscle, the Bearcats stomped the Billikens 71-43. What they lacked at the point, they made up at the point of attack. This was Big Biceps Basketball, and mighty effective.
''You could see it in their eyes that they came out ready,'' said St. Louis forward Jeff Harris. ''The last two games they weren't too concerned about us ... But tonight, they came out with that mindset to take care of business early.''
Conference USA is a better concept than it is a conference. It is a marriage of television markets, a gerrymandered league of three divisions and few traditional rivals. Playing on its home floor, against a team that had been ranked No. 1 in preseason, the Billikens were able to draw only a half-full house at Kiel Center. Perhaps the locals knew what to expect.
Too strong, too quick ...
Simply put, the Bearcats were too strong for St. Louis. Too quick, too. But after a pair of comparatively tight games during the regular season, UC was finally able to demonstrate its dominance. The Bearcats controlled the boards, the tempo and - of equal importance - themselves. They resisted the urge to let the game descend into basketbrawl.
There was some risk of this when the Billikens' Sekeue Barentine shoved Fortson as they emerged from a tangle of bodies with 7:30 remaining in the first half. Three technicals fouls resulted from this exchange, and several harsh words, but Fortson had the presence of mind not to permit a bad situation to deteriorate.
When Barentine pushed him, Fortson immediately raised his arms when his basic instinct might have been to ball his fists. In the heat of the moment, he stayed cool. It was among the more noteworthy developments of an otherwise dull night.
Short of ball-handlers, forced to face the tournament's home team, the Bearcats made a risky situation seem routine. They trailed only once, at 5-4, and kept St. Louis at least 18 points at bay throughout the second half. What little suspense developed during the game involved this burning question: ''What's Damon Flint hiding behind those shades?''
Flint played 21 minutes with his tinted eyewear, scored eight points, and was charged with only one turnover. When he removed the glasses for post-game interviews, he squinted into the TV lights like a boxer who had just gone 15 rounds. His teammates, sensitive souls that they are, have begun referring to Flint as ''Sugar Ray.''
'Put up or shut up'
His right eye was bright red and half shut after Thursday's game, and the area around his eyebrow was as swollen as the Ohio River. Patterson struck Flint with a stray elbow in practice Wednesday, and Flint spent the bulk of Thursday trying to get the eye open.
His smile, however, remains intact. Come March, Damon Flint would probably play blindfolded.
''It's tournament time,'' he said, and that was explanation enough. ''The regular season, to me, doesn't mean anything. Tournament time is put up or shut up.''
This is what Huggins has been counting on. His team was plainly overrated in preseason, but it usually saves its best work for March.
''They were aggressive from the start,'' said St. Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour. ''They made two good plays by Patterson to set the tone, and it was downhill from there.''
The Bearcats played defense Thursday with a persistence seldom seen during the regular season. They overcame their backcourt obstacles by taking the ball decisively to the basket. They were a sight for sore eyes.