CINCINNATI - Many times over the past three years, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin walked up to Deonta Vaughn after another tough loss and put his arm around his star guard.
We've got to take some lumps, Cronin would say, but this is all going to change.
Change could come in March. For the first time, Cronin and Vaughn have realistic expectations of reaching the NCAA tournament. A trip to the Big Dance would signal the end of the rebuilding project Cronin took over three years ago.
If that happens, Cronin could pat himself on the back for pulling his alma mater out of the depths of the Big East - but he'd probably seek out Vaughn first.
"If things go well this year and we end up in the NCAA tournament, I'll be most happy for him," Cronin says. "He's had to take the brunt of the rebuilding. You don't know what it does to a kid."
Vaughn - a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Indianapolis whose first name is pronounced "Dee-ON-tay" - was the only high school player in Cronin's seven-player signing class in 2006, and he has ended every season at Cincy battered and beaten. Meanwhile, he has led the team in scoring in each of his three seasons and was a first-team All-Big East performer as a sophomore.
"I've done everything I want to do individually," Vaughn says. "I want to make the NCAA tournament. That's my only goal."
The Bearcats flirted with that goal last season. On Feb. 11, Cincinnati looked as if it could possibly nab an NCAA tournament bid. The Bearcats were 17-8 overall and 7-5 in the conference. But they lost six of their last seven games, including the Big East tournament opener to DePaul, which hadn't won a conference game all season.
The team had played over its head in getting to 17-8, Cronin says, and Vaughn was overextended and Cincinnati didn't have enough depth.
"Rebuilding isn't easy in any league, but in this one it's tougher," Cronin says. "You can't be a pretender in this league. You will get exposed. ? We were a year away, and it eventually showed."
That year has arrived.
Last season, Vaughn averaged nearly 36 minutes per game; none of his teammates were on the court for more than 28. Playing on tired legs, Vaughn's scoring and shooting percentage dropped from his sophomore season.
Cincinnati appears to be gaining on the teams in the upper half of the Big East as Mick Cronin enters his fourth season as coach. Here's a recap of the first three seasons with guard Deonta Vaughn's statistics.
11-19, 2-14 Big East
33.0 minutes, 14.5 ppg, .373 FG
33.4 minutes, 17.3 ppg, .436 FG
35.8 minutes, 15.3 ppg, .388 FG
NOTE: * - Lost in first round of College Basketball Invitational
Vaughn played many of those minutes at point guard, making the workload more taxing. Coaches had hoped freshman Cashmere Wright would play the point, but he missed the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. By the end of the season, Vaughn struggled with pain in his feet because of overuse. He's still recovering four months after the end of the season.
"I was pretty exhausted," Vaughn says. "But what player isn't exhausted after playing a lot of minutes during the season?"
Now, heading into his senior season, Vaughn finally appears to have the supporting cast he needs:
Sophomore forward Yancy Gates was the first five-star prospect Cronin signed. As a freshman, he was the Bearcats' top frontcourt player and the only player other than Vaughn to average double figures in scoring last season.
Wright should be cleared to play this season. His presence would mean Vaughn could slide over and play his more natural position of shooting guard.
Ibrahima Thomas (6-11/230) won't be eligible until Dec. 13 after his transfer from Oklahoma State, but he should complement Gates in the frontcourt.
Lance Stephenson is the most intriguing of all of Cincinnati's additions to the roster. Stephenson, a five-star freshman, gives the Bearcats a big and talented guard. Cronin says he thinks Stephenson has the confidence to compete with the Big East's best players.
Signing Stephenson also is a calculated risk. Because of legal and eligibility concerns, Stephenson didn't sign until late June. Several schools ended their recruitment after Stephenson was charged with misdemeanor sexual assault for allegedly groping a 17-year-old girl in October. He since has reached a plea bargain to avoid potential jail time. His amateur status also is in question after he appeared in an online reality series and toured an Under Armour sporting goods facility during a recruiting visit.
"We think he'll be cleared to play or we wouldn't have recruited him," Cronin says.
Whether Stephenson plays or not, the rebuilding phase at Cincinnati is nearing a close.
The roster was decimated after the departure of interim coach Andy Kennedy following the 2005-06 season. Kennedy, now at Ole Miss, replaced Bob Huggins. The damage to the roster was so vast that no player who played for Huggins played for Cronin, though only one season separated the coaches.
"It's taken three years for normalcy," Cronin says.
Don't ask Vaughn for any guarantees, though. He has been around long enough to know the season could take sharp turns. He won't even take a stab at how he thinks this team will come together.
"I can't say right now because not everyone's on campus right now," Vaughn says. "Some of the veterans are comfortable playing with each other, but we have to get freshmen involved more. They aren't here right now. Then we should see what we got going on as a team."
The overall trajectory of the program points to good things. The Bearcats had the same Big East record (8-10) in each of the past two seasons, but they finished with an overall winning record last season for the first time under Cronin. Meanwhile, the Big East won't be as tough as it was last season, when the conference had five teams in the Sweet 16 and two in the Final Four.
"[We've gone] from 16th to 11th to ninth," Cronin says. "There are a lot of teams that I'm sure wish they were on the path we're on."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.