SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Joe Mazzulla had a long road to recovery from season-ending shoulder surgery, but the grind of rehab combined with trying to practice and play basketball at a high enough level to help his team seemed to be wearing on him. Plus, there was the frustration of not being able to do the things he had done before the injury.
He wasn't having much fun. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins realized that and talked to Mazzulla at the Big East tournament about settling down and just enjoying the game ... like he used to.
That was at Madison Square Garden at halftime of the Mountaineers first-round victory against Cincinnati. The conversation has turned out to be one of the keys to West Virginia's run to the Final Four because Mazzulla's play has significantly improved.
While there were many factors that went into the Mountaineers' upset against Kentucky Saturday in an Elite Eight game, a strong argument could be made that Mazzulla was the difference in the contest. His ability to drive to the basket and score helped open things up for the Mountaineers on offense.
"Mazzulla made some big shots for them," said Kentucky coach John Calipari after the Wildcats' 73-66 loss to the Mountaineers. "I mean, he got to the basket and got some layups that just were, man, back-breaking. He just played so well and ran their team."
Huggins said that Mazzulla's performance the past few games has been a combination of his enjoying himself and the fact he is finally healthy.
"He wasn't playing with [enthusiasm], he was just kind of out there," Huggins said. "If Joe doesn't play with great enthusiasm and energy, he's not very good. That's what kind of puts him over the top and I think since then he's played with great enthusiasm.
"But he has been playing with one arm for so long this season, he didn't shoot a shot with his left hand until maybe a month ago or three weeks ago but he is shooting the ball extremely well now."
Mazzulla's emergence as a key player in recent weeks was a big development. His importance was heightened by the fact the Mountaineers lost starting point guard Truck Bryant with a foot injury last week.
That meant increased minutes for the 6-foot-2 Mazzulla and an increased role in running the offense and scoring. But scoring didn't come easy for Mazzulla, who had 17 points and handed out three assists against the Wildcats. He was reluctant to shoot because he spent the season passing up shots because he physically couldn't make them.
Early in Saturday's game, Huggins got on Mazzulla for passing up a shot and told him to start shooting. Mazzulla obliged by making a 3-pointer with 11:23 to play in the first half -- his first points of the game -- and that got him going.
It was Mazzulla's first 3-point shot of the season -- before that he was 0 for 6 from the 3-point range -- and he said he was glad to get that monkey off his back.
"I have been shooting the 3-ball really well in practice so it was only a matter of time before I actually hit one," he said. "I think my biggest problem was just kind of hesitating. I figured, I got nothing to lose [when he took the early 3-pointer], the worst thing that happens is I go sit next to Huggs for a little while."
Although Mazzulla's offense grabbed the headlines, his defense was a huge factor in the Mountaineers' victory. He plays the bottom of West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone and did a good job of keeping the Wildcats from getting the ball to big man DeMarcus Cousins.
"Mazzulla was down there, he was physical, he was tough," Kentucky's Patrick Patterson said. "He was doing whatever he could do to stop us from scoring down low. Him being down low and the 1-3-1, that bothered us."
Kentucky's John Wall added, "[Mazzulla] was holding on pretty tough to DeMarcus. We tried to lob [Cousins] the ball but we couldn't get it to him."
NOTE -- Bryant might be able to play in the Final Four despite a broken bone in his foot, according to several published reports. However, he still must be fitted with a special shoe insert and then see how he responds before he is officially cleared. Bryant missed the Mountaineers' past two games after he had the fifth metatarsal bone in his foot broken at practice last Tuesday.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720. First Published March 29, 2010 4:00 AM