MORGANTOWN - For four months now, Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant have been doing everything they could think of to help Bob Huggins mold a team that, aside from them, was almost completely new to college basketball into something resembling an NCAA tournament team.
Along the way, every time the team slipped through 13 losses and struggled just to win four of its final 12 games, the two seniors always could look on the bright side. There was always another chance.
Not anymore. Not now.
By all rights, Jones and Bryant did a rather remarkable job of getting a freshman-laden and sometimes injury-riddled team into the NCAA tournament. All of those second chances paid off, but now the focus turns not to helping the Mountaineers improve, but survive.
Call it a sense of urgency that hasn't been there before.
"Hopefully finality sets in,'' Huggins said Tuesday. "The next time they lose - K.J. and Truck, for sure - they're never going to wear a [WVU] uniform again. During the regular season it's always, 'We'll get 'em next time.' ''
There is no next time now. The No. 10 seeded Mountaineers (19-13) face seventh-seeded Gonzaga (25-6) Thursday night in Pittsburgh in their opening game of the NCAA tournament. The winner of that 7:20 p.m. game at Consol Energy Center goes on to play again Saturday, probably against second-seeded Ohio State. The loser goes home for good.
"It is weird to think it could all end at any time,'' Bryant said. "But we're not looking at it that way. We plan to keep playing for a while.''
Jones and Bryant might have good reason to hold those expectations, at least from a historical perspective. This is the fourth NCAA tournament for both, and only once, when they were freshmen, did the Mountaineers bow out in the first game. While Jones wasn't a major contributor in that 68-60 loss to Dayton in Minneapolis, the loss certainly couldn't have been pinned on Bryant. He had 21 points and three assists and made four of his six 3-point tries.
The next season, of course, West Virginia won four games in the tournament and made it to the Final Four for the first time in over half a century. Last year the Mountaineers won their opener against Clemson before losing a halftime lead and falling to eventual national runner-up Kentucky.
"We've had success before and there's no reason to think we can't have success again,'' Jones said. "We just have to play the way we're capable of playing. We have to play hard defense and make shots. If we do that we can play with anybody in the country.''
While Jones and Bryant are the only seniors on the team, Huggins hopes that sense of finality also sinks in with the younger players. Deniz Kilicli and Dominique Rutledge are juniors with another year to play, but the rest of the roster is made up of freshmen.
For those, Huggins had a rather rude-awakening message about what happens when the season ends. Quite simply, another one begins, and the start of that one isn't nearly as much fun.
"It's kind of like I tell them. The next time we lose, 'You guys will be back lifting weights and running with Andy,' '' Huggins said, referring to strength and conditioning coach Andy Kettler. "And that's really not a lot of fun. You do all that so you can play, so why wouldn't you do the best job you could at trying to play as long as you can play?''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.