CHARLESTON - A young West Virginia team was rewarded with a fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth for Bob Huggins, and the veteran coach is counting on some of his five freshmen regulars to help extend a challenging season for a few more games.
Because West Virginia has veterans like Kevin Jones, who's averaging 20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds, Huggins won't lean on the youngsters too heavily when No. 10 seeded West Virginia (19-13) plays No. 7 Gonzaga (25-6) on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Huggins has never had a task at West Virginia quite like this year when it comes to teaching.
The season began with eight freshmen, along with Jones, Darryl "Truck" Bryant and Deniz Kilicli. Three freshmen either were injured or left the team.
Huggins would like to see any improvement in the tournament from a season full of lapses in defense, ball movement and handling.
"They've got to do something different and make a shot," Huggins said Tuesday. "They've been terribly inconsistent. We haven't finished games the way we certainly would like to finish games."
Starting point guard Jabarie Hinds leads the team in assists, albeit at only three a game. And he's the leading scorer among the freshmen with a 7.6 average.
Forward Keaton Miles has started all but one game, averaging 1.4 points and two rebounds. Guards Gary Browne and Aaron Brown have made spotty contributions off the bench, and walk-on Paul Williamson has seen more-than-expected playing time due to injuries.
"This hasn't been one person," Huggins said. "It's been a whole bunch of guys. We've just got to do a better job of ball security. You can't hand the ball to (other teams') guys for layups. You can't take plays off and not block out or let a guy back-cut you. Our whole focus and our attention to detail has to get so much better."
The freshmen were limited to 10 combined points in an overtime loss to Connecticut in West Virginia's lone game in the Big East Tournament last week.
In the NCAA Tournament, West Virginia has lost its first game only once in four previous trips under Huggins.
Miles figures now isn't the time to get caught up in the experience.
"My mentality is win or go home," Miles said. "This could be our last game. We have to give it our all. We have to suck it up, grow up ... and play basketball."
Youngsters also could make a difference for Gonzaga. Starting freshmen guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. lead the Zags into their 14th straight NCAA tournament.
Pangos is the team's top scorer at 13.8 points and Bell is fourth at 10 per game.
Huggins doesn't anticipate the youngest players on either team slumping under the pressure of their first NCAA experience.
"I've watched a lot of tape of Gonzaga," Huggins said. "I don't see them (wilting) and I would be very, very shocked if our guys do."
Jones will have his greatest role yet in this tournament after finishing the regular season as the Big East's top scorer and rebounder. Despite those accomplishments, he was passed over for conference player of the year - an award given to Marquette's Jae Crowder.
Jones isn't worried anymore about individual glory, just the opportunity to fulfill a goal that the Mountaineers missed out on when they lost to Duke in the NCAA semifinals two years ago in Indianapolis.
"We definitely want to go out with just a chance to get that NCAA championship," Jones said. "We have our chance now. It's up to us to see what we can do with it."
West Virginia has seen challenges since the start of the season, losing to Division II Northern Kentucky in an exhibition game.
At one point late in the season the Mountaineers had lost seven of nine. But West Virginia ended the regular season by beating DePaul and South Florida to secure its place in the NCAA field.
Among its top victories were over Kansas State, Cincinnati, Georgetown and Miami. There were close losses to Syracuse, Baylor, Marquette and Louisville.
"We've been in games," Huggins said. "Primarily because of our youth, we haven't finished games. And because we've played a great schedule."