There are several obvious candidates for the role. West Virginia could use more consistent production from Kevin Jones, who is 30-76 from the floor in his last seven games. It has been waiting most of the year for Truck Bryant to break a far worse shooting slump. It needs Casey Mitchell to use all of his talents to score from both inside and outside the arc. It needs John Flowers to be a bit more aggressive on the offensive end, and for Deniz Kilicli to continue to improve his offensive game. Any or all of those items would help WVU get out of the 50s and 60s it has been putting up in the scoring column of late, but there's another player that simply has to play well, and score, in order for West Virginia to have a chance –senior guard Joe Mazzulla.
I realize that Mazzulla isn't a scoring machine. But a look at West Virginia's successes and shortcomings this year reveal that the Rhode Island native is an integral part of the former, and not just in setting up the offense or playing hard-nosed defense. Even though he's averaging just 6.7 points per game, his play on the offensive end is going to be critical down the stretch.
Take, for example, Mazzulla's performances over WVU's last ten games. In the win over Purdue, the lefty scored ten points. He kept WVU in the loss at Louisville with 18, then backed that up with a 16-point effort in an important win at Cincinnati. He only had four points in a ho-hum win over Seton Hall, but barely matched that total combined in consecutive losses to Villanova and Pitt. He bounced back with 12 points against DePaul, but managed just two in Monday's loss to Syracuse. See the pattern there?
|Mazzulla's Big East Stats|
One of the ways in which Mazzulla can score is off drives. He's one of the few players who can play "off the bounce" – that is, by driving the ball to create offense. Granted, he's not often going to do that, but he does have the ability to drive and get lay-ups if bigs don't step over to help, and he needs to look for those chances more aggressively down the stretch. Mazzulla has been excellent in not forcing that issue this year, and should be commended for his pass-first mentality. But with WVU thirsting for points, he has to not only serve up the water, but take some drinks himself on occasion.
The same is true from the perimeter. Mazzulla knows his limitations as a shooter, and he's not going to soar over defenders and fire in 22-foot jumpers. Again, he has to pick his spots. But when the shots are open, he needs to take them. If he doesn't, defenders can back off and cut down his driving lanes, which makes him less effective on the offensive end.
Another area in which Mazzulla's play is critical to his team is on the boards. Going back over those last ten games, the gritty guard has grabbed 53 rebounds. Those boards have made a big difference for a team that has been rebound-challenged this year, especially in league play. WVU is outrebounding Big East foes by just 1.2 boards per outing this year, and without Mazzulla's efforts, would be looking at a deficit.
Of course, Mazzulla's play-making goes without question. He has an excellent 94-40 assist-to-turnover ratio, and is by far the best Mountaineer at getting into the offense and making decisions with the ball. That, along with his rebounding and defense, certainly can't disappear. Given, however, West Virginia's success when he scores, he has to figure out a way to squeeze a few more scoring opportunities out of his time with the ball. If he can do that, WVU will have the chance to wind up the regular season with a trip to the NCAAs already secured.