Sunday, March 28, 2010

Joe Mazzulla's unlikely return to NCAA Tournament hero

I was in attendance at the Verizon Center in DC on March 23rd, 2008, when Joe Mazzulla had 13 points, 11 boards, and 8 assists as seven-seeded West Virginia knocked off second-seed Duke to advance to the Sweet 16.

Which is why I wasn't surprised to see Joe Mazzulla go for 17 points and 3 assists as the Mountaineers knocked off the East Region's one seeded Kentucky Wildcats. The kid can play.

What may have been the most surprising part about last night was that he was even on the court.

Since that Duke game, things haven't exactly gone perfectly for Mazzulla. In July of 2008, he was arrested at a Pittsburgh Pirates game for underage drinking and allegedly assaulting a police officer. Nine months later in April of 2009, he was charged with domestic battery outside of a bar in Morgantown, which led to an indefinite suspension from all team-related activities.

But the suspension didn't matter all that much.

In December of 2008, in what would have been Mazzulla's junior season, he collided with a Mississippi defender, fracturing the growth plate in his left shoulder. His shooting shoulder.

He tried to play through the injury, but the pain was too intense. He sat out the rest of the season after having surgery on his shoulder, a surgery that no basketball player had ever returned from.

There was no guarantee Mazzulla would get back onto the court after surgery.
(photo credit NYDN)

"He didn't know if he would ever play again," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said after the game. "They had never done that surgery on a basketball player. Everybody that our medical staff talked to said, including the guys that are the foremost authorities on those kind of things in the country, if you could avoid surgery, avoid surgery."

Not exactly the ideal life for a college athlete. Two arrests in nine months, an indefinite suspension from all team-related activities, and to top it off a surgery that forces you to do two hours of therapy every day with no guarantee of getting you back onto the court.

"We tried to talk to him a lot," Huggins said after the game. "He came in one day and he had tears in his eyes. He said, 'Huggs, what am I going to do if I can't play?'"

Mazzulla was still trying to overcome this injury at the start the season. He sat out the first game of the year, and once he got back on the court, he spent the early part of the season playing right-handed; Mazzulla is a lefty.

It really limited his minutes. West Virginia couldn't play him late in game -- when they needed his leadership and ball-handling -- because teams would simply foul him and put him on the line.

Now take a step back and think about that. Really think on the kind of leadership that provides. Here's a kid that can't use his left hand, that can't even shoot the ball, and he's out there playing -- defending, setting a screen, diving in for a lose ball -- doing anything he can to help the team win.

And all with one arm.

"He's the un-questioned leader," Wellington Smith told Jameson Fleming after the game.

According to Huggins, Mazzulla wasn't able to shoot left-handed until about a month ago.

Coming into tonight, Mazzulla hadn't hit a three all season long.

In one of the more prophetic moments in this year's NCAA Tournament, Bobby Huggins said this to Pete Thamel on the New York Times during Friday's off-day: "You might see [him shoot] tomorrow. He's playing really well. He's shooting the ball really well. If he makes a couple he could really have a great game."

Eight minutes into the game last night, Kentucky looked like they were poised to run away from the Mountaineers, using an 11-0 run to take a 13-6 lead. Mazzulla knocked down a three that ended the run and held West Virginia over until Da'Sean Butler could catch fire.

Butler would proceed to score 15 points in the last eight minutes of the first half, sparking a West Virginia team that didn't hit a two point field goal in the first half (8-15 from three, 0-15 from two, 4-5 from the line) to a 28-26 halftime lead.

The second half was the Joe Mazzulla show. He scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half, with nine of them coming in a 19-10 surge in the first eight minutes of the half that put WVU up 47-36.

Mazzulla scored in a variety of ways, beating Kentucky down the floor in transition (he had one hesitation move in the open court that left John Wall frozen) and breaking them down in the half court.

As Huggins said, all it took was one shot to go down and Mazzulla's went off.

But, as anyone that has watched West Virginia this season, Mazzulla's biggest impact wasn't on the offensive end of the floor. The Mountaineers ran their 1-3-1 zone to perfection last night, daring the Wildcats to shoot from the perimeter (they were 4-32 from three) while forcing them out of a rhythm offensively. Where this zone was going to be dangerous, however, was on the back line. Kentucky has the best big man in the country in 6'11", 270 lb, DeMarcus Cousins.

Mazzulla, who is generously listed a 6'2", 200 lb, plays the back like of that 1-3-1.

And while Cousins went for 15 points and 8 boards -- 6 offensive -- Mazzulla's effort not only limited the touches Cousins was able to get, it frustrated him. He got in Cousins' head. Anyone watching the game could see the arm-flailing, the disgusted looks, and Cousins barking at the refs.

"At one point in the game, he looked at me and said 'Are you serious?'" said Mazzulla. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm serious. You're going to have to punch me in the face for me to get off you.'"

Mazzulla didn't just lead by example.

With eight minutes to go in the second half, there was a sloppy sequence. John Wall missed a three. Butler grabbed the rebound, but his outlet pass to Devin Ebanks was stolen by Wall. Wall tried to dribble through three defenders, turned the ball over, and Butler found Ebanks all alone at the other end. But Ebanks bobbled the ball, losing it out of bounds instead of bring the house down with a dunk.

He was frustrated, but Mazzulla was the guy that reached Ebanks first.

"He told me to move on and forget it," Ebanks said. "He knew I wanted to dunk it so bad. I calmed myself down after I listened to him."

He set the tone defensively, he is the team's leader, and he just so happened to score a career-high 17 points while playing on one shoulder.

That's why he won the East Regional MOP while averaging a gaudy 7.0 ppg and 3.8 apg.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good job. I enjoyed reading this post about Mazzulla. The kid is a fighter.