Shouldering the Burden

  • March 14, 2010 03:52 PM
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By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
March 14, 2010

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If Da’Sean Butler is the heart and soul of this year’s West Virginia University basketball team then Joe Mazzulla is its spine. Mazzulla is the guy that gives this team its backbone and its toughness.

  Joe Mazzulla was responsible for six points and seven assists during West Virginia's 60-58 victory over Georgetown for the school's first Big East tournament ttle.
Kevin Kinder Blueandgoldnews.com photo

Who knows where the Mountaineer program could be sitting right now if Mazzulla had been able to stay healthy? Last year, Coach Bob Huggins was forced to do some shuffling when Mazzulla went down at Ole Miss with a shoulder injury that eventually forced him to undergo season-ending surgery.

Huggins had to do some more shuffling at the beginning of this year when he realized Joe was not the Joe of old. Mazzulla was doing some adapting of his own by shooting free throws with his right hand to compensate for the pain that he felt when he tried them with his natural left hand.

There were times late in the season when you could see the disappointment and discouragement on Mazzulla’s face, especially when he was being subbed at the end of games because of his struggles at the free throw line.

“I’ve been battling the whole confidence issue (at the free throw line). I get subbed out when it’s free throw time and when it’s offense-defense,” said Mazzulla.

Well, Mazzulla proved Saturday with his two late free throws against Georgetown that he is once again trustworthy at the end of games. He says part of that is because his shoulder is finally feeling better.

“It takes time but everything is feeling better and getting back into place,” Mazzulla said.

Guards are the gatekeepers to championships. They are the ones with the ball in their hands at the end of games and it’s what they do with the ball that usually determines how far teams advance in postseason play.

Former WVU coach Joedy Gardner once asked the late Fred Schaus why he never took him out of games during his career. Schaus gave Gardner a really simple answer, “You never turn over the basketball.”

Joe Mazzulla’s stat line on Saturday included seven assists and ZERO turnovers. That far outweighs the 0 for 6 he put up from the floor, or his unwillingness to try wide open 3s despite Georgetown literally begging him to do so.

West Virginia’s offensive struggles have been well documented this year. We certainly saw some of that this weekend during those agonizing stretches when the team simply couldn’t score. Fortunately, the other teams couldn’t score either.

Effective offense doesn’t require having five great scorers on the floor at the same time – or even three or four for that matter. What effective offense requires is having five players playing in unison, the ballhandlers hanging onto the ball, the screeners making their screens, the passers making good passes, and your best shooters taking the best shots.

That only happens when all of the parts fit, and it appears the parts are starting to come together now when the ball is in Joe Mazzulla’s hands.

“If you can tell I’m always looking over at Huggs to see what he wants and try and be an extension of him on the floor,” Mazzulla said. “Most point guards you want to have the ball at the end of the clock but with the type of team that we have and the weapons that we have, it’s more of getting guys into positions to make shots and getting the ball to the right people at certain times.”

Huggins touched on some of the intangibles Mazzulla brings to the team following his teams’ first Big East tournament title on Saturday night.

“I didn’t think Joe was giving us what we needed Joe to give us,” Huggins said. “And he and I had a talk about that. Joe brings such great enthusiasm – he brings so much toughness. He competes so hard and I thought he kind of wasn’t Joe. Everybody loves Joe for what he is and Joe doesn’t need to be anything else than what Joe is. I thought the last three games he’s been really, really good.”

It was Mazzulla’s 8 critical points coming off the bench in 24 minutes of action that played a big part in West Virginia’s 53-51 victory over Notre Dame on Friday night.

Mazzulla played 29 minutes and almost the entire second half of Saturday’s game against Georgetown. He was sent to the line with 27 seconds left, and despite a sub-50-percent free throw shooting percentage coming into the game, Mazzulla stepped up and made two critical free throws with the outcome hanging in the balance. In fact, Joe made all six of his free throw attempts for the game.

“I think with the relationship I have with Huggs, I think he wanted to leave me out there and it’s easier to make free throws when you have the confidence from your coaches on the sidelines,” Mazzulla said. “I looked at him as soon as I was fouled and he had no doubt in his mind so I went up and just knocked them down.”

“I thought he ran our team,” Huggins added. “He broke the defense down and got the ball to the basket for us. For a guy that they don’t think can shoot because of his shoulder, he went to the free throw line and made shots for us.”

With those two clutch free throws under his belt and the confidence that will come from them, it appears Joe Mazzulla is ready to shoulder even more of the burden as the sixth-ranked Mountaineers move on to NCAA tournament play next weekend.

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