By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This is Final Four weekend, to many sports fans the greatest weekend of the year, and if it’s that special to fans, think what it is to the athletes who perform there.
That’s what was going through an idle sports writer’s mind this week, leading him in the direction of Joe Mazzulla, today an assistant coach at Fairmont State but in another life the man maybe most responsible for getting West Virginia University into the Final Four during the magical season that was 2009-10.
It is difficult to understand all that goes into building a Final Four team, especially this Final Four team that was put together and trained by John Beilein and Bob Huggins, then driven to a Final Four showdown with Duke in Indianapolis.
Even the players don’t realize the magnitude of what they have done, and that WVU team did a whole lot. There just aren’t many people on Earth who can say they won the Big East, advanced to the Elite Eight and then beat Kentucky before finally losing to Duke in a game that would end in disaster, Da’Sean Butler crumpled on the Indianapolis floor with a knee injury that would derail his journey to the NBA.
“It’s unbelievable accomplishment,” Mazzulla said. “You need to be away from the game for four or five years to really understand how hard it is to get there. Being away you see how hard it was, but you also see how great the accomplishment is.”
Imagine, if you will, the high that came with a West Virginia beating Kentucky in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse and contrast it with the low that grew out of the loss to Duke.
These are emotions you can’t, as a fan, understand, for as Mazzulla would explain, that are not at all the way you would think they are.
“The high was pretty surreal,” he said. “When you are a college basketball player and you are playing in a game, it’s just another game. You don’t realize what it’s all about because you are so focused on game plans and playing basketball. But when you get out of basketball for a while, you realize what you accomplished.”
And the low?
Believe it or not, it is not as devastating as it may seem.
“The low of losing to Duke was a little bit of running into a very good team at the time that was playing very well. I don’t know it even was a low,” he said.
It is a case of you win some and you lose some. Sometimes the other team is just better.
And sometimes it’s just not your night.
“I wish we had played a little bit better. We were a little winded from winning the Big East and getting to the Final Four, not physically but mentally,” Mazzulla said. “I think we were a little satisfied. We worked so hard to get to that point I think we let up a little bit.”
Perhaps there was an aspect of that loss to Duke that few people thought of at the time, but two years earlier, in getting to the Sweet 16, WVU had humbled Duke and then, caught up in the elation of the victory over one of college basketball’s reigning powers, the Mountaineers may have gotten their attention.
“I remember saying in an interview before the game that we were going to get the best of Duke. That year of the Sweet 16 we gave Duke a loss. It wasn’t that we beat them but it was the way we beat them. We out-toughed them, out-physicaled them. I’d bet a lot of money Coach K showed them that game that week. I knew when they beat Baylor in the Elite Eight we would have our hands full. The first thing that came to my mind was the way we beat them.”
At that time Joe Alexander had commented about all the good the high school All-Americans the Blue Devils recruited did them in that game, and Mazzulla himself, in his exuberance, had gotten down and was beating on the floor, mocking Duke’s tradition of celebrating victories that way.
Mazzulla acknowledged in hindsight that may have been a mistake.
“I’m sure it was. But at the end of the day, it was a Sweet 16 basketball game and people have to be themselves. Whether Duke used that as motivation or not, they came to play and got the best of us. I’m sure that played a small part in it.”
But before Duke there was that Kentucky game and in it was Mazzulla, still battling back from a shoulder injury, possessing an average of only 2.2 points a game, going out there against the Wildcats and scoring 17 points with three assists.
It was as if everything that Joe Mazzulla had battled for came together in that Kentucky game.
“When I got hurt I never really got into a rhythm. I got hurt five games into my junior year and sat all that time and then when I came back every other game I sat out,” he said. “But me being able to practice every day and be in every game at the end of the year made me more comfortable out there. I played four straight games in the Big East Tournament, got to practice every day. By the Kentucky game it was the fifth or sixth straight game I had played.”
And he played it as if he might never play another, carrying the Mountaineers into the Final Four.
What was it, Mazzulla was asked, that anointed that group as a Final Four team?
“Beilein brought us in and recruited us for a reason,” Mazzulla said. “When Coach Huggins came in I think he did an unbelievable job of sticking to those fundamentals and principles. All he did was add his toughness in his personality and his defensive principles and it kind of meshed.
“I find it funny when people ask how different Beilein and Huggins are. They really aren’t that different. One is a little more demonstrative. They are both very tactical coaches, both very hands-on and both are very, very smart.
“A mix of our fundamentals and philosophies of defense and toughness really molded us into a pretty good team.”
And Huggins was the perfect coach for Mazzulla.
“As a player, his personality complemented me a little bit more. He kind of reflected the way my dad raised me and the way I was brought up in basketball from a toughness standpoint. Coach Beilein believed in me. He knew I knew the game and had fundamentals, but I think as I got older I needed a coach like Coach Huggins with his personality. That helped me become a better player as time went on.”
But, at least for Mazzulla, the Final Four wasn’t the highlight of the season, winning the Big East standing even taller in his mind, perhaps because of the way they won the tournament, closing out the regular season with a 68-66 overtime victory at Villanova, then going through the tournament beating Cincinnati, 54-51; topping Notre Dame, 53-51; and winning the title over Georgetown, 60-58.
“I just moved into a new house and one of the rooms is a West Virginia room and there’s a lot of memorabilia from that year. When I go in and look at it, it’s very, very surreal,” he said.
His favorite of all that is there?
“It’s more the stuff from the Big East,” he said.
Asked why, he replied, “Because of the history of the Big East. Watching that ‘Requiem for the Big East’ on 30 for 30, it’s almost like you have a little piece of history in that. To be the only West Virginia team to have won the Big East says a lot to me, probably more than the Final Four.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.