INDIANAPOLIS - When West Virginia upset Kentucky to win the East Regional, its secret weapon was backup point guard Joe Mazzulla, who scored a career-high 17 points and played killer defense against Wildcats center DeMarcus Cousins in the Mountaineers' 1-3-1 zone.
As the player who taunted Duke after an NCAA Tournament second-round win two years ago, Mazzulla is no secret to the Blue Devils (33-5), but he might play a critical role again in the second semifinal Saturday night at the Final Four.
Starting point guard Darryl Bryant suffered a broken foot before the East Regional last week and remains unlikely to play. But Mazzulla's toughness in recovering from a shoulder injury that threatened to end his career has lifted the Mountaineers (31-6), and now his lefthanded shot is beginning to come back.
"I wasn't surprised about the Kentucky game because he was doing it in practice," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "It's hard for me to explain how hard it was on him. I don't think the medical staff really thought he would be able to come back. They had never had a basketball player have that kind of surgery."
The growth plate in Mazzulla's left shoulder never fused properly after he suffered a deep bruise in a collision with another player. Huggins said he shot the ball well when he first came back but then suffered a relapse that bothered him much of the season.
"He couldn't even shoot layups lefthanded," Huggins said. "He shot free throws righthanded for probably two-thirds of the year."
Mazzulla's high game this season before Kentucky was eight points, but his end-to-end drives in the second half were called "backbreaking" by Wildcats coach John Calipari.
"Joe enables us to get easy baskets, which we have struggled to get at times," Huggins said. "Joe gives us that opportunity in transition."
If Mazzulla can reprise that performance, it will relieve pressure on the Mountaineers' big three, Da'Sean Butler, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks. At the same time, the 6-2 Mazzulla faces a major defensive challenge down low in the 1-3-1, working against 7-1 center Brian Zoubek or 6-10 backup forwards Miles and Mason Plumlee.
"I don't think Kentucky made it a point to get the ball to Cousins," Mazzulla said, modestly overlooking his role in denying the entry pass. "Zoubek and [Miles] Plumlee are more active on the offensive end. We'll have to work harder to keep the ball out of their hands."