By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins remembers the first time he saw Joe Mazzulla at point guard. He had just taken over from John Beilein, come to town with more fanfare than any one man could possibly deserve, and was putting his West Virginia University basketball team through its first scrimmage.
Yeah, he remembers Mazzulla all right. It was ugly.
“That first scrimmage we had I think he turned it over seven or eight times in three or four minutes,” Huggins said the other day before he put his team through its final practice before tonight’s Coliseum engagement with American University. “It was just not knowing how to be a point guard. His mentality was to take it to the basket and score.”
Mazzulla was a scorer coming out of Bishop Hendrickson High in Rhode Island.
“Who wasn’t?” he asked.
Indeed, like at every major college basketball school, kids that come in have been scorers in high school. Defense is nice, passing satisfying, but the headlines go to the scorers and the recruiters read the headlines.
Huggins, however, didn’t need a scorer. He had Joe Alexander and Da’Sean Butler and he had Darris Nichols running the show, so it was up to Mazzulla to be an understudy.
That isn’t always an easy thing to do. Changing coaches can be a traumatic experience.
Ask WVU’s suddenly famous shooting guard Casey Mitchell, who ran head on into Huggins last year and couldn’t accept the change. Being headstrong and injured, Mitchell flopped terribly after being the National Junior College Player of the Year.
If Mazzulla accepted the change correctly, Mitchell didn’t and Mazzulla understood it.
“It’s hard for any first year player with the demands of playing college basketball, and you know how hard Hugs is,” Mazzulla said. “But Casey has matured a lot. He has learned the plays and is a great teammate.
“He saw Da’Sean and Devin and he wants to be that good and knew to do that he had to buy in.”
Buying in is what it is all about.
It was that way for Mitchell and that way for Mazzulla, who didn’t have the same problems.
“I’m surprised I bought in as nicely as I did and that it went as smoothly as it did,” Mazzulla said. “It was a matter of do you want to survive and do you want to play here. You do what you have to do to play.”
He learned his days as a scorer were over and accepted it.
“I’m not going to go out there and try to score 20 or 25 points. I’d be a cancer on the team. You have to do what’s best for the team. You have to look at things in a realistic perspective,” he said.
The result has been that he has become almost flawless as a point guard.
Splitting time with Truck Bryant, who seems to be out of Huggins’ doghouse after being set out for the VMI game, Mazzulla’s numbers are spectacular.
He is averaging just one turnover for every 17 minutes on the floor, and he is the man who has the ball in his hands the most often.
How did it come from seven or eight turnovers in the first four minutes of his first scrimmage with Huggins to this?
“I get the ball out of my hands quickly,” he joked.
Huggins had a better explanation.
“He’s learning how to be a point guard,” he said. “Joe came in as a scorer. He wasn’t really a point guard. When he hurt his shoulder he had to do a lot more things with his right hand. He might as well have not had a right hand before. Now he’s so much more comfortable with it. He can use both hands.”
The shoulder injury came last season and delayed him for almost half the year and he wasn’t anywhere near normal until around tournament time, just in time for him to be the best player on the floor in the upset win over Kentucky that sent WVU to the Final Four.
Huggins also believes Mazzulla’s time spent with Darris Nichols, now a graduate assistant, was important to his career.
“Darris has been a great role model for him. He has looked at film of Darris. Daris certainly could have scored a lot more than what he scored but he tried to run the team. Joe has tried to emulate what Daris meant to the program in the four years he was here,” Huggins said.
The driving force, though, is the competitiveness in Mazzulla.
“Joe likes to win. More than anything else, he wants to win. He understands he has to distribute the ball for us in order to win,” Huggins said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.