Final Four 2010: West Virginia Has a New Weapon Named Joe Mazzulla

Jameson FlemingSenior Writer IMarch 28, 2010

SYRACUSE, NY - MARCH 27:  Joe Mazzulla #21 of the West Virginia Mountaineers drives against DeAndre Liggins #34 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the east regional final of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Carrier Dome on March 27, 2010 in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

SYRACUSE, NY -- West Virginia had a plan to stop Kentucky that you could call "Operation Pestering DeMarcus."

On Friday, the Mountaineers said they wanted to frustrate Wildcat freshman DeMarcus Cousins by throwing multiple bodies at him and being physical with the forward.

You would think with West Virgina's four forward, one guard lineup that Bob Huggins would be throwing multiple forwards at Cousins.

But he didn't.

He used the lone guard, Joe Mazzulla on his roster to annoy Cousins into submission.

Mazzulla succeeded, setting the tone for this game and demonstrating what Mazzulla has meant to this team all season.

"At one point he [DeMarcus] said are you serious?" Mazzulla said. "[I said] you are going to half to punch me in the face to get me off of you. That's what Huggs asked me to do to win the game."

If you ask the other players, that attitude right there is Joe Mazzulla at his finest.

"I know Joe can get under someone's skin," forward Kevin Jones said. "He's relentless, no matter who he's guarding he's going to find a way to get under someone's skin."

Repeatedly, Mazzulla knocked Cousins straight to his butt with hard screens. It didn't take long for Cousins to start yelling, flailing his arms, and mentally checking out of the game.

"Joe was getting on his [DeMarcus's] knees," Wellington Smith said. "When you are that small and going against a big guy you need to get on his knees. When you get on his knees, he begins thinking I might blow out my knee. He starts falling to the floor and yelling at the refs out of frustration."

So Joe Mazzulla had a 260 pound man in a tizzy on the defensive end of the floor. That was a major factor in West Virginia's win Saturday, but it's where Mazzulla is rapidly improving that will help West Virginia win in Indianapolis.

The junior guard hasn't been able to do much on the offensive end of the floor because of a devastating shoulder injury that almost ended his career. The injury was so bad that at one point Mazzulla walked into Bob Huggins's office teary eyed asking what he would do with himself if he couldn't play anymore.

Mazzulla was virtually unplayable in the second halves of games because he couldn't really shoot free throws. He was using his right hand, instead of his natural left to shoot the ball.

Within the last month, that's changed.

Mazzulla started taking mid-range jumpers in practice, but stayed away from the jump-shots in games. As things improved, he's begun taking threes again. On Friday, Huggins said Mazzulla was due to break out because he was the hottest shooter in practice.

"I said to him today, 'Will you please shoot the ball when they don't guard you,'" Huggins said. "He's got to."

So Joe did and he probably will continue to during the Final Four. On Saturday, Mazzulla hit his first jump shot, and predictably, Kentucky had left him wide open thinking Mazzulla wasn't going to hit a jumper.

Mazzulla said he has a renewed confidence with the ball and that was evident with his overall demeanor. Several times, Mazzulla pushed the ball the length of the floor blowing by Wildcat defenders left and right on the way to the basket.

The Rhode Island native finished with 17 points, doubling his previous season high. Remember, this is a player that averaged a bucket per game and in 10 games this season, didn't even attempt a field goal.

Mazzulla finally looks like the player that almost recorded a triple-double in an NCAA Tournament victory against Duke in 2008.

While Mazzulla's performance is returning to his pre-injury level, his role among his teammates hasn't changed.

As Wellington Smith put it, "he's the un-questioned leader."

That was evident in the second half.

Sophomore Devin Ebanks had the ball headed to the basket without a defender within 20 feet, but he flubbed the handle to blow an easy two points. Mazzulla ran immediately to Ebanks, embraced him, and said something to the forward.

"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."

Combine his leadership, his gritty defense, and returning offensive game and Mazzulla was the clear choice for the "East Regional Most Outstanding Player." For Mazzulla, that award and everything his team has accomplished has been surreal.

"March is an opportunity to fulfill dreams and that's what I'm doing."

If March is an opportunity to fulfill dreams, then what will April bring for Mazzulla and the rest of the Mountaineers as the school plays in its first Final Four in 51 years?

For more updates on college basketball, follow @JamesonFleming on twitter. He'll be in Indianapolis covering the Final Four for Bleacher Report. Also, listen to Jameson's Morning Minute to stay up to date each morning on the latest college basketball news.