No Sloppy Joe

West Virginia solidified its point position with the inking of its best pure passer this season in Joe Mazzulla, an addition which should pay immediate dividends on both ends of the floor.

The Rhode Island native is a classic pass-first point player who shows natural leadership and floor vision. He can read defenses and find open teammates through creases unseen by many other players at the one spot. And he is sixth-year head coach John Beilein's prototypical guard, and one that should play immediately behind starter Darris Nichols.

Mazzulla, at 6-2 and 180 pounds, also shows the body to be able to take the pounding inside in West Virginia's unique 1-3-1 defensive zone, in which the point guard mans the bottom slot inside the paint. There, Mazzulla will be responsible for running baseline-to-baseline to defend three-point shots in the corner while also bodying up on foes when they drive the lane. He is also one of the few WVU players with extensive experience in the weight room, and his quickness and overall speed allowed him to win three prep state titles as a junior in the 4x100, 4x400 and 400-meter dashes. Mazzulla also won three golds in the Rhode Island Class A championships, winning the 400 in 51.2 seconds and anchoring the 4x100 (44.7) and the 4x400 (3:38.7) relay teams.

That physical ability lifts him over former point guard J.D. Collins from a purely athletic standpoint. Whether Mazzulla can duplicate Collins' defensive prowess remains to be seen. What he does have is a natural feel for the game. The Bishop Hendricken High (Warwick, R.I.) product gives West Virginia two left-handers in as many point players (Nichols is also a southpaw). He can drive and dish with both hands and he also shows the no-look aspect of his passing game, and seldom turns the ball over.

"We are a different breed of athlete," Mazzulla said. "And I find coach Beilein excited to see what we are going to do this season because I do not think he has coached a more athletic team than us. Seeing us grow as a team and players is very exciting. We bring another dimension they have not had before."

Mazzulla won two consecutive state titles and averaged 16 points, eight rebounds, six assists and 2.5 steals a game as a junior – when he won MVP honors at the state tournament. His balance, both physically and in the stat column, are key traits for point guards under Beilein. He can also handle opposing guards when Beilein goes to a man defense, and has thus far shown enough toughness not to shy from Big East play.

"It is a lot different than high school, but it is a lot of fun, a great experience," Mazzulla said. "Coach Beilein and his staff did a great job of easing us into the offense. They got us into parts of the offense and, therefore, when he throws us into a five-on-five, full-court experience, each day I get more and more ready for that and I know what to do with the offense. Right now it is easier than I anticipated. I thought coming in it would be harder than it is, with a lot of terms and cuts. Paying attention and practice and working with film and whatnot has made it easier. You have to stay up on it and study the offense off the court and pay attention in practice. It is a learning process. You won't pick it up all in one day."

Mazzulla, one of eight WVU freshmen, said the newcomers are bonding through staying in the same Evansdale dorms. New NCAA rules also allowed players to attend classes and workout with the team during the summer, so the incoming players had already settled into collegiate life by the time classes started in August. Now, it's simply a steady feeding of long days learning West Virginia's style and attending classes and meetings.

"We are at an advantage," Mazzulla said of the incoming freshmen. "Most people think we are at a disadvantage. We spend so much time together that we develop a sixth-sense about us on the court, which carries into the offense. We are learning the plays and learning each other's strengths and weaknesses. It is very exciting. We find ourselves thinking about (what is could be like later). Right now we are focused on this season and the task at hand. But we wonder what it will be like in two or three years when we are the juniors and seniors."

His relationship with Nichols is also developing, as the two guards sometimes see a mirror image of each other, the Mountaineers being perhaps the only collegiate team with two left-handed point guards.

"He has been nothing but help to me," Mazzulla said of Nichols. "He'll whisper to me, tell me when I am out of position. And he is a hard guy to guard. He's a tough guy. That helps me. I know exactly what left-handers do. I look at it as guarding myself. It helps because I have to mentally and physically prepare myself for that and going against those big, physical guys in the Big East. I can anticipate what it will be like, but you don't know until you actually face it."

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