LONG, STARNGE TRIP FOR WVU SENIOR GUARD JOE MAZZULLA
Its been a long, and at times, strange trip for Joe Mazzulla through his college basketball career. Looking back to the fall of 2005 when Mazzulla made his commitment to then West Virginia head coach John Beilein, the 6-foot-2 native of Johnston (RI) never imagines how his college basketball career would twist and turn along the way.
"Not at all," replied Mazzulla when asked by NBE's Matt Whitfield Wednesday at the Big East Men's Basketball annual media day gathering at Madison Square Garden if he could imagine his career going this way when he came out of high school, "but it’s obviously been a great experience and I’ve made the best of it."
The 'best of it' was certainly highlighted last season when Mazzulla rose to the challenge of replacing an injuryed Darryl Bryant in the starting line-up down the stretch and into the NCAA Tournament. Mazzulla responded in a big way for coach Bob Huggins and his teammates earning honors as the East Region's Most Outstanding Player as the Mountaineers advanced to last season's Final Four.
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Mazzulla scored a career-high 17 points, his only double-figure scoring effort of the season, in the Mountaineers' 73-66 win over Kentucky in the East Region final at the Carrier Dome. The tough, in body and mind, left guard has had a flair for the spotlight as he narrowly missed a triple-double in a 2008 NCAA Tournament victory over Duke which propelled WVU to the Sweet 16 in 2008. Mazzulla finished that contest with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists, demonstrating often why coach Bob Huggins refers to him as one of the toughest players he has ever coached.
"I guess from the guys he’s had it’s a compliment, but he brings that out in you because of how competitive he is and what he expects from his players," Mazzulla said of the praise. "So you gotta go to him on how he brings that out every day in practice."
There are many differences in the style of play used by the Huggins-led Mountaineers compared to what was used when Coach Beilein called the shots. While Mazzulla, along with Cam Thoroughman, are still the lone holdovers from the Beilein teams, playing for a coach like Huggins seems to be right up his alley.
"Safety in practices and just the pace," answered Mazzulla when asked of the biggest differences in the two coaches he's played for at WVU. "It’s kind of more of a tactical pace to a Beilein practice and we really try and preserve energy and stuff like that. Whereas we just get after it when we’re playing for Huggins."
Mazzulla's career in Morgantown has not always been full of highlights. Injuries and a few off the court incidents has left outsiders questioning his place on the roster. After his big performance in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Mazzulla was poised to take over a starting backcourt position as a junior in the 2008-2009 season. However his starting role did not even last through seven games as a shoulder injury which would later require surgery cut short his season. Darryl Bryant, a freshman at the time, was inserted into the starting position and held the role until an injury late last season opened the door again for Mazzulla. However, Mazzulla was nearly not there to take advantage of the opportunity.
In April of 2009, while recovering from the shoulder injury, Mazzulla was indefinitely suspended from the basketball program after his arrest on charges of domestic battery. He was involved in an incident at The Lazy Lizard bar in Morgantown in which he allegedly grabbed a woman by the neck.
It was the second arrest for the Bishop Hendricken High School grad. He pleaded guilty to charges of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct after an incident the previous September at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game in which he had a disagreement with security personnel.
Mazzulla remianed in school, but his suspension carried into late August of 2009 before coach Huggins issued a release that Mazzulla was reinstated to the program.
"Joe has done everything that has been asked of him on all fronts,” said Huggins in the statement. “I believe he deserves to be back on our roster and play for the Mountaineers.”
Mazzulla was granted a medical redshirt because of the shoulder problem that cost him most of the 2008-2009 season, but the shoulder healed slowly. Even upon his reinstatement he was not fully able to compete on the basketball court. A portion of last season was spent shooting right-handed while he continued to work the shoulder back into shape. It was one of the reasons his scoring average and shooting percentages dipped to career lows. However, the belief and support he drew from his coach kept him confident and ready for his late season opportunity.
"Well you can tell by how he carries himself he really knows how to handle situations very well," said Mazzulla of what he has learned from playing under Coach Huggins. "He really instills that passion and competitive spirit in not only me, but the entire team, and I think that’s what helps us play so confidently and be successful."
Through the ups and downs, his coach has been in his corner and that means plenty to Mazzulla, who has already earned an undergraduate degree and has planned to pursue a master's degree in athletic coaching education before finishing at West Virginia, following the footsteps of his father Dan, who played college basketball at Bryant before spending time as a professional in Chile. Joe Mazzulla has been thankful for coach Huggins believing in him as he has persevered his winding trip through his college career.
"You know he’s been there every step of the way and we're very grateful for it," said Mazzulla.
Now, Mazzulla is ready for his senior season. The Big East conference coaches picked the Mountaineers to finish 5th this season in their preseason poll, but Mazzulla is confident they can perform sinilar to last season. Even without their talented forwards Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks from a season ago, the mentality of this team is unlikely to change.
"If we play like we did last year with a defensive mentality, control the tempo and rebounding, then we’ll put ourselves in a position to be in many games," Mazzulla said.
That mentality will most likely be born through practice as Huggins will instill that mindset in his teams. After five years in the program, it sounds like an aspect of life that Mazzulla is looking forward to and will miss when it is time to move on.
"Yeah, three hour war, two hours of defense and an hour of offense and the pace is great and we just get after it," Mazzulla said of a Huggins-led practice. "We do a good job of carrying that over in the games."
Toughness and perseverance has allowed Joe Mazzulla to reach this point in his West Virginia career. Now he and the coach that has been by his side throughout the last four years will try and instill those qualities in the team they look to lead in the upcoming 2010-2011 college basketball season.
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