NCAA tournament: Healthy Mazzulla boosts West Virginia

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INDIANAPOLIS -- West Virginia has been described as an offensively challenged team by a number of people, including coach Bob Huggins.

The Mountaineers (31-6), who play Duke (33-5) at 8:47 p.m. today in the second NCAA tournament national semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium, don't particularly shoot well, don't have many players capable of taking the ball to the basket off the dribble and rely heavily on offensive rebounding in order to score enough points to win games.

In fact, West Virginia standout Da'Sean Butler has joked several times through the tournament that the Mountaineers' "best chance to score is to miss the first shot so we can go get the rebound."

Although there is still some truth that the Mountaineers are not an offensive juggernaut, they certainly have evolved into a much better offensive basketball team over the past three weeks because they have a healthy point guard running the show -- Joe Mazzulla.

That's not to say that Darryl "Truck" Bryant isn't a good player, but his talents are more suited to playing the shooting guard. He had been miscast as a point guard because Mazzulla wasn't healthy enough to play heavy minutes.

But Mazzulla, who had a very difficult offseason surgery on his shoulder, can use both his hands and the difference in him as a player -- and West Virginia as a team -- is evident.

Mazzulla had 17 points in the Mountaineers' 73-66 Elite Eight victory against Kentucky a week ago. But his contributions in recent weeks goes way beyond points as he has run the offense, distributed the basketball and been a big part of the team's ability to break presses.

Huggins said that watching Mazzulla come back from his injury has been a pleasure because it is a testament to the rewards of hard work, but has also been a big part of the Mountaineers' success in the postseason.

He believes Mazzulla will be a key again tonight against the Blue Devils because the Mountaineers likely will have to be more efficient on offense in order to win.

"Joe enables us to get the easy baskets which we have at times this season struggled to get," Huggins said. "Certainly the more easy baskets you get, the easier the game is going to be for your team, and I think Joe gives us that opportunity in transition."

West Virginia's Kevin Jones added: "Joe is a very experienced point guard. He's been in the Sweet 16 before so he knows this type of pressure. He's been playing great for us."

Duke guard Jon Scheyer said that it is clear Mazzulla is a much different player now than he was two months ago, and it clearly has changed the way a team has to defend the Mountaineers.

"He's been a big factor for them, especially of late," Scheyer said. "It is another guy, another weapon that they have and you respect him because he's a really good player. Really, in that Kentucky game, he had a huge impact. We need to be ready to guard him."

Mazzulla has played all season but he hasn't been at full strength until about the past month because he is left-handed, and the surgery was on his left shoulder.

But after rehabilitation, he finally has had some breakthroughs and he's back to being able to dribble and shoot with both hands and shoot free throws the proper way. He even made a 3-pointer against the Wildcats.

West Virginia senior Da'Sean Butler said that the Mazzulla's impact on the offense is evident, but even more important is his leadership and his ability to defend.

"Just having him back has been a pleasure," Butler said. "He does so much for the team while he's on the floor. He's passionate about defending the other team's best players or best guard -- he is the first one to tell Coach, 'I want to guard this guy,' and he's a leader on the floor.

"When he was out for a while, it was difficult for the team to actually just jell, but when he got back, he's just done nothing but amaze everybody. It is something we've seen every day so nobody on this team is like 'wow.' "

Paul Zeise: or 412-263-1720.


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