NCAA tournament: West Virginia's Mazzulla, Bryant make point to enhance success


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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The point in all of this for the West Virginia men's basketball team is, well, the point -- as in the point guard.

Without the recent progression in play of both point guards -- redshirt junior Joe Mazzulla and sophomore Truck Bryant -- there is a chance that West Virginia (29-6) would not be traveling to Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday for the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 round to face Washington (26-9).

There is a chance the Mountaineers would never be caught in the vortex of this eight-game winning streak.

There is a chance, honestly a better than good one, that their season would be done.

But what was a decent-sized question as the season began and manifested into a markedly larger one through the midway point of the season has been vehemently answered by the two-pronged Mazzulla and Bryant, as the duo has led the Mountaineers to the Big East Conference tournament title and, now, are two wins away from the Final Four.

Mazzulla, who smashed the growth plate in his left shoulder early last season and had to eventually take a redshirt, still goes through rehabilitation on most days, before any of his basketball specific workouts begin. And then there's Bryant, who West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has been notoriously tough on, and has been left to grow up rather quickly, forced into consequential minutes last year and then this season as Mazzulla scraps back.

"I think we probably asked [Bryant] to do too much, play too many minutes [early this season]," Huggins said of a West Virginia team that after starting 11-0 dropped three of five games.

"And then we played Da'Sean [Butler] there, and he did a great job for us, but it takes away from the other really positive things that Da'Sean does. I think getting Joe [Mazzulla] back, we've kind of split the minutes now between the two of them. I think that keeps both of them fresher."

It also forces quite a quandary -- on both ends of the floor -- for teams playing West Virginia.

Take the win Sunday in a second-round against Missouri, for example.

The Tigers came in beating their chests about how they were going to force the pace to be expeditious to the point where West Virginia would unnerve.

It never happened.

Instead, Mazzulla (who played 24 minutes off the bench) and Bryant (who started and played 16) broke Missouri's press with aplomb, snaking through it meticulously and limiting the Mountaineers to 10 turnovers against a team that normally forces 20.

For Bryant, at least, making everyone around him better is something that is still a work in progress.

"It's different for Truck," Huggins said.

"Truck is the all-time leading scorer at St. Raymond's [High School in New York]. He's used to scoring the ball. He and I have had several sit-downs about what a point guard is, what a point guard does. And I think he's done a really good job. I told him I have absolutely no problem with my point guard scoring. ... It's just you still have to be able to get other people involved and get us in offense. And I think both of those guys have done a better job as the season has progressed."

With Mazzulla, as he was still battling the lingering impact of the injury, his minutes began to dwindle and he was relegated to coming off the bench.

But, just before the Big East tournament, Huggins made sure to let Mazzulla know that his impact on March would be monumental.

"I kind of honestly thought that Joe was kind of really, at the start of the Big East tournament, he was kind of settling for just being a role player for us," Huggins said of Mazzulla.

"And I had a conversation about him stepping up and playing the way that we all expected him to play."


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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