Vaughn leads UC … but now has help

CINCINNATI -- In the cartoon, the rabbit wins.

When Bugs Bunny squares off against the Gas House Gorillas -- first base, Bugs Bunny, second base, Bugs Bunny -- thanks to animation and some Looney Tunes, the hare outsmarts the powerful pugs.

In Big East basketball? Bugs would be rabbit stew.

Just ask Deonta Vaughn. For three years, he hasn't been just the best player in a Cincinnati uniform. He has been the player. The senior guard has played 94 games for the Bearcats and played fewer than 30 minutes just 14 times -- seven of those during his freshman season. In Big East games, he's logged less than 30 just twice in his entire career.

Vaughn has been Cincinnati's leading scorer in each of the past three seasons, logging minutes more suitable for a masochist than a basketball player -- from 33 minutes as a rookie to 33.4 as a sophomore to 35.8 as a junior.

"He is the man," Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. "I know there were times that he was tired, but he'd never say it. He's done some unbelievable things for us, but you can't be Superman every night, and that's what we've needed him to be."

But as the Bearcats ready for practice, Vaughn finds himself with the most priceless commodity a basketball player can ask for: help.

He no longer has to be Bugs Bunny and do it all himself. He finally has a quality cast of teammates who very well could do the unthinkable in the Big East: vault a middle-of-the-road team into the upper echelon.

Should Cincinnati actually succeed, it will be along the lines of storming the Bastille. Since the Big East expanded to 16 teams before the 2005-06 season, only six teams have found their way into the top three in the final regular-season standings: Louisville, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Villanova.

In other words, it's a more exclusive club than Augusta National.

But with Vaughn, a healthy Cashmere Wright, an ever-improving Yancy Gates and the additions of Oklahoma State transfer Ibrahima Thomas and uber-freshman Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati is poised to make some noise.

"This is a huge year for us," Cronin said. "Huge. Rebuilding this program has been the challenge of a lifetime. To take this job and go through what we've gone through has been tough. To win in this league, you not only have to have talent, you have to have experience. You can't win if you haven't been through it. We've got that mix this year. We've got it."

The true missing link has been a player along the lines of Stephenson, a top-20 recruit who injects much-needed offense and star power into the Bearcats' lineup. He comes to town with baggage and a huge risk quotient, but New York City's all-time leading high school scorer also has the potential to catapult Cincinnati in a hurry should he stay issue-free.

As much as the preseason chatter has surrounded Stephenson, though, ultimately it is Vaughn who will determine where the Bearcats finish. The Big East, with its rugged play and ridiculous scheduling that never permits an exhale, has proved to be a league that can eat up freshmen and spit them out like peach pits.

Teams that win the regular-season title or conference tourney tend to have wily veterans, and rare, if ever, is the team that rides the coattails of a rookie to glory.

In Vaughn, Cincinnati has a player who not only has fought in the league's trenches but also often has taken the hand grenades alone. Many were a night when Vaughn would return to his room achy and exhausted. A hot shower would relax him, but a bang to an inevitably bruised spot on his body would jolt him back to reality in a heartbeat.

He didn't have to sign up for this, of course. Vaughn knew exactly what he was getting into. When Cronin picked up the pieces in 2006 after former coach Bob Huggins and former university president Nancy Zimpher finished sparring, little more than a skeleton of the Bearcats was left.

"We could have had John Wooden at head coach and Mike Krzyzewski as an assistant, and we still wouldn't have won," Cronin said.

Vaughn, an Indianapolis native whose road to Indiana was derailed by prep school, wasn't worried about the Legos he'd have to stack in his career. In fact, he embraced it.

"I don't like easy," said the kid who is one of eight children in his family and fairly accustomed to fighting for every morsel. "If things comes easy, you're not working, you're not improving."

Vaughn got lots of time for working at Cincinnati. In each of the past two preseasons, Cincy has lost a potential starter to injury: Mike Williams tore his ACL in 2007, and Wright tore his ACL just two weeks before the start of practice last season. As the Bearcats rebuilt and fought through those setbacks, Vaughn became almost the entire offense.

"Injury-free, that's what we're going for," Wright said as he reached out to knock wood Tuesday morning.

They're also gunning for the NCAA tournament. From 1992 to 2005, Cincinnati made 14 straight appearances in the Big Dance. But the Cats haven't been back since.

So like most guys who serve as the building block to resurrecting a program, Vaughn has yet to reap the rewards for his work. Every year Selection Sunday rolls around, and every year the Cincinnati televisions are black. The Bearcats' 2008 berth in the College Basketball Invitational has been the lone postseason invite during Vaughn's tenure.

His teammates are well aware.

"Everybody on this team wants to do something special for him," Wright said. "He's worked so hard to build the Bearcats back up, to get this program where it wants to be, but there's still one place he hasn't gone, and we want to take him there: to the NCAA tournament."

Vaughn at once says he doesn't allow himself to imagine it, but then lets himself go, dreaming of the Final Four in his hometown of Indy. He imagines his neighborhood friends and family flocking to Lucas Oil Stadium, a jam-packed I-74 filled with Bearcats fans making the short two-hour drive, much like Michigan State fans poured into Detroit last season.

And then he snaps out of it and gets down to more realistic dreams.

"I look around practice, and we have what we need to be a great team," Vaughn said. "We've got talented players, experienced players. We've got guys who can create their own shots or create for other people. They might even be able to drive the lane and kick to me for a change."

And at last, Bugs Bunny can rest.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.