MORGANTOWN — March, they say, comes in like a lion.
So, too, does Joe Mazzulla.
If baseball had its “Mr. October” in Reggie Jackson, Joe Mazzulla is college basketball’s Mr. March.
He roars into tournament time, and it’s a good thing, because it seems West Virginia needs him.
You might recall the game back on March 22, 2008, Bob Huggins first year as WVU coach. The Mountaineers were in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, playing no less an opponent than Duke, which is college basketball royalty and not used to a commoner like Joe Mazzulla slapping them around.
Yet that is just what he did. His body flying all over the court, he nearly put together a triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists as WVU pulled off the upset.
But since then that very style of reckless play that he displayed against Duke came back to haunt him. Early the next season, on Dec. 9, diving against Davidson he suffered a serious shoulder injury, one that would put him out of action for a year, one that cause him to worry whether or not his career was over.
A lesser player would have given up, but Mazzulla, instead, went after it as if it were a loose ball.
He couldn’t use his left arm. Fine. He used his right. He taught himself to shoot free throws that way. Not well, but enough so that he could play.
In game played above the rim, he tried playing without being able to raise his left arm above his shoulder.
Truck Bryant became the starting point guard, Mazzulla the backup. He played sparingly at first, then more and more.
The better the shoulder got, the more he played. A year passed, then a year and a month and two months and three months.
Then suddenly it was March, West Virginia was in the Big East Tournament, Bryant was having an awful time of it, messing up passes, losing the ball dribbling and missing shots.
“He did not play well. That’s not a secret,” Huggins said.
In the final against Georgetown he would play 29 minutes, his most all year. True, he would miss all six shots he took, but this man who was shooting less than 50 percent from the free throw line because he had to shoot with the wrong hand early in the
season, made six of six and dished out seven assists without a turnover.
It was Dukian performance, to coin a term, Mazzulla playing knockout defense and running the show as if he’d never been gone.
His performance eased a lot of doubts, for Bryant’s struggles were a concern heading into the NCAAs and an opening round game at 12:15 p.m. Friday against Morgan State in Buffalo.
Now, Huggins has a choice. He can go with Mazzulla and, if Bryant recovers his poise and stroke away from Madison Square Garden and the home crowd, he will be able to use the two of them as the situation dictates, which would be perfect for Mazzulla is a better defender and Bryant a better shooter.
As for Mazzulla, he knows that some good is coming out of his struggles with his health this season and his battle to recover.
“It’s made me a better player,” he said.
Then he thought for a moment and added, almost as an afterthought, “a person.”
The Big East championship is not just window dressing, either, Mazzulla believes.
“It gives us a lot of confidence. We finally can start believing we are one of the best teams in the country and it should help us make a run in the NCAA,” he said.
“It was great for my confidence. I can’t put it into words, what it means, winning the Big East championship,” he said. “This was even better than beating Duke. It was really special to the state and the school.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.