"We've got to win 10 or 11 of our next 15 to make the tournament," those are the words of wisdom from senior guard Deonta Vaughn, who now runs the risk of being a rare, four-year starter that never made it to the NCAA tournament.
For that matter, Vaughn's never been to the NIT. All he has to show for a pretty decent career at UC is a one-game experiment in the CBI (which most folks believe is a Friday night crime drama).
It has to be disappointing. Just as Vaughn's individual season has been up until late.
#5 came into this season with a chance to be just UC's second 2,000 career point man. At his current 11.3 points per game average though, he's going to come up substantially short. Unless, of course, he starts setting the Big East on fire.
As of late, Vaughn's numbers are up. That is good, because from beyond the arc, the Bearcats have been a dreadful 28 percent this season (so far).
"They're going to start falling," said Vaughn of UC's shooting woes. "Beginning of the season, I was just like that, they weren't falling for me. They've started falling now. Everybody's just got to keep shooting and keep confidence in their jump shot."
Should that confidence come around, the Bearcats could have a run in them. They've already proven they can beat ranked teams, having knocked off three (Vanderbilt, Maryland and Connecticut--all ranked at the time). The problem is, at least five more games against ranked opponents remain (Syracuse, UConn, West Virginia, Villanova and Georgetown) along with the rest of the Big East teams that are far from pushovers.
"It's the top conference in the nation right now with at least six teams in the Top 25," said Vaughn of the Big East schedule. "We're just hoping to knock some of those Top 25 teams out in the Big East so we can keep ourselves up there."
UC finds itself in the predicament of trying to impress "the committee" in part because of their non-conference schedule. While Maui was valuable in terms of competition, there's been little room to breathe easy in the transition from December to January conference games.
"We've played a lot of good teams," said Mick Cronin. "Because of playing three really good power teams in Maui and then having to play Xavier and UAB both on the road--and the Miami (OH) game is brutal for everyone that plays them--playing six games like that before 18 in the Big East, we've played a lot of tough games. We've had tough losses."
"My focus is to make sure our guys stay positive and don't succumb to negativity and realize how close we are to having a much better record. More importantly, to realize how close we are to being a very good team that's capable of winning five in a row. We just have to put it together."
From the player's standpoint, what's been the problem? Well, opinions differ....
"I think our strategy messed up a lot," said Lance Stephenson. "I think we need to get more in the gym more than anything. Our defense is pretty good right now, we just need to get in the gym and make the shots we usually make."
However, the guy sitting next to Stephenson on this day, Deonta Vaughn, observed that defense WAS the issue.
"I think our defensive strategy's been missing," said Vaughn. "We ain't playing like we did in the beginning, in Maui. We executed everything even though everybody wasn't hitting good shots. We all ain't committed to playing a defensive role and doing what we've got to do to get a win, starting with me. Some people are just scoring on me right now that I think shouldn't be scoring and things like that."
Mick Cronin's job is to bring it all home. Actually, defense AND shooting is probably the issue. And of course, winning games that should and need to be won. Naturally, a streak would be welcome at this point in time.
"Well, you've got to worry about one," said Cronin. "At the end of the day, you've got to win your home games. For us, that's where our focus has got to be. We dropped one to Pittsburgh and we can't lose any more."
Should the wins not materialize, Vaughn could be the first 1500-plus point scorer in Bearcat history to not make the postseason. Oscar Robertson, Steve Logan, Danny Fortson, Pat Cummings, Jason Maxiell, Ron Bonham and Darnell Burton all went to "The Dance". Roger McClendon, Louis Banks, Jack Twyman and Lloyd Batts all played in the NIT.
Again, all Vaughn has to hang his hat on is the mysterious CBI. That was and is not the plan, but the senior guard tries not to obsess.
"I really don't think about it much," said Vaughn. "I just go out there and play ball. At the end of the day, I've had a great career here, but that's a goal of mine to get to the NCAA tournament. Hopefully, we'll get there and we'll do what we've got to do to keep moving on in the tournament."
When you look at the names (above) that Deonta Vaughn will be go down in history with, playing March would certainly be a fitting reward for his hard work.
Two months from now, we'll have our answer.