Joe Mazzulla emerged from a tunnel inside the WVU Coliseum on Friday morning wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
"What's up with you guys? I haven't talked to you all in forever," Mazzulla said to a handful of assorted reporters gathered for Friday's scheduled interview session.
From the look on his face and the sound of his voice, it would have been hard for the casual, uninformed observer to tell that Mazzulla has been battling through some serious pain in the past couple of weeks. The junior point guard will miss Saturday's home game against Miami (Ohio).
Save for a six-minute stint in the Davidson game, Mazzulla has not played since colliding with Ole Miss forward Malcolm White in the final minutes of West Virginia's win over the Rebels on December 3.
Ironically, the specific injury Mazzulla is dealing with, a growth-plate fracture in his left shoulder, is something he has had for quite some time.
"The doctor said I've had it my whole life, but that it was something I could have lived my life without knowing that I had," he explained. "I guess the way I fell is what irritated it and set it off."
The veteran sat out a December 6 home win over Cleveland State in hopes of getting a little bit of extra rest and recovery time before WVU's nationally-televised game against Davidson in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. Mazzulla started, but it became clear quite early in that game that he was not even remotely close to being 100 percent healthy.
Compounding his ineffectiveness was the fact that he took another shot on the same shoulder en route to the basket. As he prepared to shoot a couple of foul shots, Mazzulla knew that the injury had just gotten worse, which showed on his first free throw attempt.
"I didn't want to be short," he said, "and then the next thing I know (the ball) almost hits me back in the face."
"I said that was enough. I figured I would hurt the team by trying to play more."
Since that game, Mazzulla has not practiced. Instead, he's been working closely with head trainer Randy Meador doing a variety of exercises and treatments designed to slowly but surely get the shoulder back to where it was prior to the first injury against Mississippi.
In reality, it could be worse. Some growth-plate fractures have been known to cause tears to the labrum or rotator cuff. Mazzulla has neither.
"I'm sure that's a good thing," he noted. "Doc (Meador) and I have done a lot of research and there have been labrum tears, rotator cuff injuries and some other really serious stuff. Fortunately, I don't have any of that. It's just the fracture itself, so that's a good thing."
As of right now, there is no timetable for Mazzulla's return to practices or games, but it is safe to say that he is out for the foreseeable future. After Saturday, the Mountaineers play Radford on Tuesday night followed by a December 27 trip to Ohio State. There is then a six-day break between the game at OSU and the Big East opener at Seton Hall on January 3.
One option that has not been discussed at length but is a remote possibility is corrective surgery. Choosing this path would obviously end Mazzulla's 2008-09 season and could potentially result in a medical redshirt for the Johnston, R.I. native.
At this point, however, the chances of taking that route to recovery seem to be slim.
"That's the last thing that we want to do," he acknowledged. "We really don't want that at all because it is a long process. There is a good chance that with what Doc and I are doing, the medicine that we have that it can heal on its own.
"We're banking on, and we're confident that it can heal on its own so I don't have to (have surgery)."
While the rest of the team is practicing on the floor, Mazzulla spends his time in the training room or weight room doing all that he can to not only treat the injury, but stay in shape so that when he is able to return to practice, he can do so without having to work his way back into basketball condition. He also meets with a doctor on a weekly basis.
Additionally, Mazzulla has been spending more time in the film room and pouring over scouting reports of upcoming opponents. Although he's doing all that he can physically to get back on the court, there are still plenty of frustrations that set in when dealing with the injury.
"It's frustrating because you see that we have six or seven guys," Mazzulla said. "They're working as hard as they can. I just wish I could go in there and give them a break. Sometimes they feel kind of down. That's what hurts me the most – that I can't help my teammates at all by physically going out there. That's the only time it hurts me."
Even with the adversity he's currently trying to fight through, the junior seems to be in good spirits.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I told Coach that I'm going to turn into a right-handed jump shooter, so don't be surprised if I pull up for a right-handed jump shot in the near future. I've been working on that. Everything happens for a reason, and that's the attitude you have to have with an injury like this."
At some point between now and the end of the season, there is a good chance that Mazzulla will be back on the court, being ever the aggressor on both offense and defense while leading the Mountaineers in their pursuit of another NCAA tournament bid.
When that time will come, however, is still to be determined.
"Obviously if the pain is manageable and I don't shoot anything into the third row again, I'll be able to (play)," he said. "We're just hoping that it heals itself. It's getting a little bit better every day."