Padded and Prepared

He pinwheels around the court, no matter the opponent or the situation. He crashes into teammates, foes, the floor and sometimes the crowd. Is it any wonder that Joe Mazzulla wears thigh pads the size of a defensive lineman's?

They aren't apparent, unless you are looking for them. But when Mazzulla unleashes one of his headlong dives or fearless drives to the basket, a glimpse of them appear. Football thigh pads, probably as big as those worn by Keilen Dykes or Scooter Berry, along with a the shorts that used to be called a girdle, protecting the sophomore point guard's upper legs. But if anyone needs them, it's West Virginia's whirling dervish from Rhode Island.

When asked about them, Mazzulla said little – with a mischievous grin, he simply hiked his game shorts of high enough to see the big pads protecting the front of his legs. The pads first came into use last year, when a deep, serious thigh bruise knocked him out of action for a couple of games and limited him in several others. This year, under the demanding defensive precepts of Bob Huggins, they remained. However, they weren't enough to keep him from suffering another thigh injury during practice before the Oklahoma game. That injury, which limited his mobility greatly, contributed to WVU's overtime defeat.

Against Marquette, Mazzulla launched one of his headlong rushes into the lane, and despite sinking a scooped shot for a lay-up, had to be helped from the floor. For all the world it appeared to be a recurrence of the injury of a year ago, and an aggravation of the ding that he took before the Oklahoma contest. Head trainer Randy Meador quickly had Mazzulla stretched out behind the WVU bench, however, and got him back into the game for the crucial second half performance which helped the Mountaineers knock off the Golden Eagles.

"I can only bend my knee like 110 degrees right now," Mazzulla said after his outstanding performance against Marquette, in which he helped hold star Dominic James to ten points. "The normal range is about 140 degrees. When I fell, my leg got pushed back further than that. I didn't get hit on the thigh, it was more that I bent it too far back."

That bending put more stress on the thigh muscle (to see what this feels like, simply stand on one leg, then raise the other foot up until you can't do so any more. Then grab your toe and pull on it – the stress on the thigh should become readily apparent.) Mazzulla, with the bruising in his thigh, can't bend it that far yet without pain, which limits his mobility. However, he doesn't think this injury is a serious as the one he suffered a year ago.

"It will get better. I just have to keep working with the doctors. I have to keep working in the training room," said Mazzulla, who is as tough as any gridiron gladiator. "When is comes down to gametime, it doesn't hurt. I don't let it."

The pads certainly help in some instances, such as when opposing knees and elbows make contact, but they can't help the overstretching of the muscles, which was what happened against Marquette. Still, Mazzulla knows that they are of some benefit. And for those things they don't help? Again, no worries.

"I don't let it limit me, he said of both the injury and any restraints the padding puts on him. "It only limits you if you let it, but I don't let that happen."

Of course, the ultimate solution would be for Mazzulla to dial down his intensity a bit, but that would not only limit his effectiveness, but also be totally in conflict with the way he plays the game. Mazzulla's fearless play is his trademark, but it also helps inspire his teammates.

"I enjoy it. It gets the rest of the team motivated to play defense well. If they see me running around and diving on the floor, maybe it helps them up their defensive effort too."

With our without the football padding.

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