The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 16, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - As Mazzulla goes, so go Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — In case you haven’t noticed, Joe Mazzulla is back, and West Virginia University’s chance to survive late into the NCAA Tournament is better because of it.

You might not have noticed that he was gone, but opposing defenses did.

Mazzulla was injured in a nasty fall almost three seasons ago now, his shoulder so badly injured that the left-hander could barely lift his left arm to shoulder level. He missed all but the first seven games of the 2008-09 season and was half a player through most of 2009-10.

“He didn’t really shoot with his left hand until the last game of the regular season,” coach Bob Huggins pointed out.

He could play defense and he could pass, but offensively he was a liability when it came to putting the ball in the hoop and, in the final analysis, that is what this silly game of basketball is all about.

But now, as the Mountaineers move forward into the final NCAA Tournament of Mazzulla’s career, he has become the most important part of the offense because he not only can pass but now is a threat to score – even from the 3-point line – and by penetrating.

“The jump shot is as good as it was before the injury,” Mazzulla proclaimed the other day as he readied himself for Thursday’s first-round matchup against Clemson in the NCAA.

It didn’t just magically come back. It has taken two years of rehabilitation, some of grueling, much of it tedious.

And it took practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.

You could stop by the Coliseum almost any day an hour before the scheduled practice time and Mazzulla would be there, shooting 20 jumpers from the corner, 20 from the right elbow, the left elbow, straight away, the other corner.

What’s more, it wasn’t just in season.

“This summer I made an effort to work on my shot. I wanted to make it something of a strength,” he said.

Consider how bad things had gotten. The year before the injury Mazzulla had shot a respectable 45.9 percent from the floor, a nearly identical 45.8 percent from 3-point range and 64.9 percent from the free-throw line.

The year after the injury he shot 36.9 percent from the field, 12.5 percent from 3 and 56.3 percent from the free throw line.

He was so ineffective that teams weren’t really guarding him.

They guard him now.

In fact, Marquette picked him before reaching half court in its upset of the Mountaineers in the Big East Tournament, a game Mazzulla would rather forget, considering he had a rare six turnovers after finishing second in the Big East in assist-to-turnover percentage during the regular season.

“They caught me off guard picking me up on the other side of half court and closing in on me. To be honest, I didn’t know how to handle it,” he admitted.

Surely, the Mountaineers’ opponents will take note of that, but Mazzulla says bring it on.

“I watched tape, and now I know how to handle it,” he said. “I know now I have to prepare myself mentally for that.”

“It’s not a bad thing if they come out and guard him. It’s a good thing,” Huggins said. “It makes it easier for him to get to the basket.”

 If teams come out and play Mazzulla, that should make it easier for him to drive around them and penetrate into the center of the defense or to the rim, and that is what makes the Mountaineers go. It worked that way in the Marquette game when the Mountaineers shot so well in the first half and dreadfully in the second half, hitting only 22.2 percent of their shots.

What happened?

“A lot has to do with our penetration. When we don’t get the ball in the lane and are stagnant on the offensive end, we don’t get ourselves in shooting position. When we have great shot preparation, we take it in the lane and can kick it back out. It gets us an extra half second to prepare ourselves, to square up and shoot the ball,” he said.

Now we are in Mazzulla’s time of year, the NCAA Tournament. His two best career games were against Duke and Kentucky in the tournament.

It wasn’t a freak, either.

“Against Duke we felt he could drive the ball and told him that,” Huggins said. “They were playing young guards, and we felt if we could move them it would open it up for him. And the Kentucky game, he had started playing with confidence in the conference tournament. They didn’t think he could shoot free throws, but by then he could.”

Now, it’s the last go-round, and Huggins knows that as Mazzulla goes, so goes his team. He likes that he’s scoring, but he says most important is taking care of the ball.

“Joe has turned the ball over 11 times in the last two games. We can’t win if he does that.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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