SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The NCAA Tournament begins well before the play-in games on that first Tuesday night.
Before Selection Sunday.
Before the week of conference championship tournaments.
Players see it weeks before any of that ever happens as they play out the final stretch of regular-season games and evaluate what it will take to participate in the sport's biggest spectacle.
"You can see it coming and it gets you going," said West Virginia senior forward Kevin Jones, who has been in three tournaments and is trying to help the Mountaineers get to a fourth. "We have a long way to go to get there. I think we're in an OK position right now, but we're not close to where we want to be."
Only Jones, senior Truck Bryant and junior Deniz Kilicli know what could await the Mountaineers. They're the only players remaining on the active roster who have been to a tournament, the only ones who have seen it coming from far, far away.
WVU plays at No. 20 Notre Dame at 7 p.m. tonight (ESPN2) and knows stopping a 10-game losing streak at the Joyce Center will help the team move even closer to a fifth straight NCAA Tournament bid.
Those veterans have been a part of big wins late in the season in the past and have seen what those victories did for the RPI and the postseason resume.
Trouble is, those three have to get that across to four true freshmen and one junior college transfer who have never been and don't feel the pull that Jones, Bryant and Kilicli can't resist.
"I think they know the position we're in now, but at the end of the day, I don't think they know how important it is, in this position, to win these games," Bryant said. "It's crunch time now where we've got to win some games."
The Mountaineers (17-10, 7-7 Big East) are coming off a strong finish in Thursday's 66-48 win at Pitt, WVU's largest road margin of victory in the Backyard Brawl in 45 years. It was a key road win and also kept WVU from being swept in one of its three home-and-home series in Big East play.
WVU swept Rutgers, but lost at home to Notre Dame (19-8, 11-3) on Feb. 8. Another road win, this time where the Mountaineers are 1-11 all-time and haven't won since 1996, prevents another season series sweep and also gets WVU closer 10 conference wins.
Coach Bob Huggins told his players earlier this month they needed 10 to get into the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountaineers were No. 40 in the RPI Tuesday and No. 7 in strength of schedule, two tools the NCAA's selection committee uses when picking at-large participants for the tournament. No Big East team that was below .500 in conference play has made the tournament as an at-large team since 1994.