Basketball Roots

West Virginia's first men's basketball recruit in the Class of 2006 has excellent hoops talent in his immediate family, but it apparently didn't play a large part in his decision to make roundball his collegiate sport of choice.

Rhode Island's Joe Mazzulla, who committed to West Virginia earlier this week, didn't begin concentrating seriously on basketball until a couple of seasons ago, when he joined a local AAU team and found he had a natural aptitude for the sport. Before then, however, soccer was his main athletic endeavor. What made that choice a bit odd is the fact that Joe's father, Dan, was a standout collegiate player in his own right who also played professionally for several years.

"I played at Bryant College (now Bryant University) in Smithfield, Rhode Island," the elder Mazzulla told "It's a Division II school. I played there in the early eighties, then went to South America and played for five years, mostly in Chile. It was a great experience. Basketball has taken me halfway around the world."

With such a background, it wouldn't have been a surprise if Dan had pushed his son toward hoops at an early age, but that didn't happen. Dan has been around athletics all his life, including coaching from youth leagues through high school and in his current job as Director of Parks and Recreation for the town of Johnston, R.I. With all that experience, Mazzulla knows all too well the dangers of overbearing parents and the pressure they can put on their kids in athletics. Instead, he let his son decide what he wanted to pursue, and put his involvement into helping his son learn the right way to play.

"The only thing I asked of him was that he commit to whatever he was doing, to compete hard, and be disciplined and committed to it," said Dan, in what should be a motto for Little League parents everywhere. "We've always had a good relationship on and off the court."

Mazzulla did coach his son for a couple of seasons, but it came in middle school youth league soccer, not on the basketball court. He has coached numerous high school teams, including girls basketball and soccer as well as boys and girls track, but never coached his son on the basketball court.

Of course, that doesn't stop the father from analyzing his son's game, and as a former collegiate player with pro experience, he has a good eye for what makes a successful player.

"His basketball IQ is unbelievable," said Dan of his son's biggest strength on the floor. "He's an extension of the coach on the floor. His ball handling is very good, and he's not afraid to mix it up inside. Even at his height, he's a good rebounder, and he is a hard worker on defense."

If Joe is beginning to sound like a prototypical John Beilein player, then you've been paying attention thus far. The left-handed point appears to be an excellent fit for the fundamentally sound approach employed by the Mountaineers' veteran coach.

"Joe fits in well with that type of offense," Dan continued. "He knows the game and how to set things up, but he gets to the basket well too. Coach Beilein is a gentleman who represents what college basketball stands for, and I'm happy with the way this has worked out."

Like West Virginia, Rhode Island isn't overflowing with people, so there aren't typically a huge number of top athletes coming out of the state. Also similar to the Mountain State, Ocean State players often rely on AAU competition get noticed, which is exactly what Joe has done while playing for the Rhode Island Hawks and the Rhode Island Breakers.

West Virginia initially spotted Joe on the AAU circuit last year, and former assistant Jeff Neubauer returned to watch Mazzulla during a later evaluation period. WVU's interest never wavered, and it finally paid off last week with a commitment from what some believe is a hidden gem.

"Playing AAU let Joe compete against a more diverse group of players and styles," Dan Mazzulla noted. "It's a numbers game."

That competition, along with an increased focus on basketball, brought the younger Mazzulla several Division I offers, and now has him poised to join what will be the top basketball league in the country. And while Dan tries to keep some restraint on his enthusiasm for his son's coming leap to the top level of college hoops, there's understandably some excitement that his son is following in, and perhaps preparing to leap over, his own footsteps.

"Joe has talent, but he has also worked hard," Mazzulla said as he summed up his son's progress. "I mean, this is the Big East!"

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