By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Joe Mazzulla will be making his final trip to Pitt’s Petersen Events Center at 9 p.m. tonight for the 182nd renewal of the Backyard Basketball Brawl, and it just could be that he holds the key to West Virginia’s chances to upset the nation’s No. 4/6 team.
Pitt won the initial meeting between the two teams at WVU, 71-66, and the Panthers did it without their top scorer Ashton Gibbs, a 3-point shooting guard, which would certain establish the Panthers as the favorite on their home court, where a wild and crazy crowd of 12,000 seldom lets them lose.
In the game at the Coliseum, Pitt dominated the paint, scoring 42 points there and grabbing off 18 offensive rebounds to just 8 for West Virginia.
“We can’t let them penetrate into the lane,” said WVU senior forward Cam Thoroughman. “We have to get inside people.”
Mazzulla will be in great part responsible for keeping the Pitt guards out of the lane, where they can either shoot a short jumper or dish to the likes of Gilbert Brown or Nasir Robinson, two dangerous inside forces.
But as important as him keeping people out of the lane, what he has to do is find a way to get himself into the lane offensively through penetration. Of all the things that make the Mountaineer offense work, Mazzulla’s aggressiveness to the basket seems to be most important.
When Mazzulla scores in double figures, WVU is 5-2 this season and is 12-5 during his career.
More important, he seems to rise to the occasion and has had his best games in some of the biggest games WVU has ever played.
Against Kentucky last year, when the Mountaineers advanced to the Final Four, he banged home 17 points. In 2008, in the upset over Duke in the NCAAs, he scored 13 with 11 rebounds and eight assists. You look at his double-figure games and the only one that was against a so-called “easy” team was back in 2007 against Winthorp.
Other than that, it’s Mazzulla in the middle against Auburn and Iowa and Pitt and Villanova and Xavier and Providence and Louisville and Purdue and South Florida in a game where he also saved the day by spending the second half guarding the South Florida big man Kentrell Gransberry, twice his size.
So it is that this year his fellow seniors have been urging him to be more aggressive offensively, to drive the lane, to force the issue, especially without anyone hitting outside shots.
“When he’s aggressive and driving we’re a better team,” Thoroughman said.
“It’s just great to know your teammates want you to do that,” Mazzulla said.
He took it all to heart in a crucial battle at home with No. 8 Notre Dame last Saturday, scoring 16 points and dishing out seven assists. As important, he refused to allow them to pay any extra attention to Truck Bryant when he got hot and went off for 24 points, a lot of it due to Mazzulla’s ability to get in the middle of the defense, let it cave in, then get the ball back out to Bryant.
That led to a 72-58 victory over the Irish, one that certainly solidified the Mountaineers spot in the NCAA Tournament, save a total collapse through the final four regular-season games and the Big East Tournament.%
One victory would give them 18 for the year and guarantee at least a .500 record in the Big East with two victories over Top 10 teams (Notre Dame and Purdue). If they would beat Pitt they would have three wins over Top 10 teams and be looking at a decent seed.
Getting inside against Pitt is dangerous for Mazzulla as the Panthers do have great size and that is the one thing that separates them from West Virginia, which is an undersized team.
“They don’t have to push the ball out as far as we do defensively,” coach Bob Huggins said as he explained the difference in defensive philosophies between the two teams. “We have a bad lack of size.”
And Pitt also has big Gary McGhee, a 6-11 space eater, inside.
“He is underappreciated outside (the Pitt program and opposing coaches),” Huggins said. “When we played them the first time we put up three shots inside that we normally score on and he blocked all three of them.”
This time, if Mazzulla is in the lane, it could be that he will have to come out to guard him and Mazzulla can slip the ball to Kevin Jones or Deniz Kilicli down inside him.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.