Five years ago this Friday, West Virginia beat Kentucky in the East Regional final and Mazzulla played the hero’s role. In his first start of the season, Mazzulla squared off against John Wall and scored a then-career-high 17 points, dished out three assists and was generally all over the court for a second-seeded Mountaineers team that played swarming defense and took down a Kentucky team that featured Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Fast forward to Thursday. West Virginia is a No. 5 seed and a heavy underdog against a Kentucky team that’s chasing history, sitting at 36-0 and having been challenged only a handful of times this season. And the teams face off once again in the Sweet 16, opening tip scheduled for 9:45 p.m. ET.
Now an assistant coach at Division II Fairmont State, Mazzulla doesn’t see himself as a West Virginia legend — he’s done a couple interviews but otherwise ignored his phone this week — and doesn’t see his alma mater as a giant killer.
Though admittedly a biased one, Mazzulla said he’s just an observer; just a fan of what he thinks will be a competitive game Thursday night. In coachspeak, he’s taking it a game at a time and enjoying watching the little things the Mountaineers are doing right.
"When you coach the game and see the game as a coach, you know how hard it is to keep a team together for the kind of run it takes to keep playing in March," Mazzulla said. "You really appreciate the work, the listening, the long hours. When I look back now on that (2010 West Virginia) team, it’s not one specific thing or even that (Kentucky) game. It’s more kind of everything, the big shots and the playing with your guys and just everybody buying in, that I remember most."
That 73-66 West Virginia win in Syracuse’s Carrier Dome on March 27, 2010 could be the biggest of Bob Huggins’ coaching career. Considering Huggins has 765 career wins and is in his 21st NCAA tournament, that’s a bold statement.
But it’s not the coach’s first win over John Calipari-coached team, either. Not even close, actually — Huggins is 8-2 in his career against his friend.
But that one in 2010 is certainly a memorable one. Kentucky was a No. 1 seed and a four-point Las Vegas favorite, and had young but emerging star power in Wall and Cousins. Huggins was in his third season at West Virginia and was just getting his own players and systems installed.
West Virginia got its preferred pace — the Mountaineers led 28-26 at halftime — and outlasted Kentucky down the stretch to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis, also the site of this year’s Final Four.
We’ll find out Thursday night if that’s coincidence.
"We missed 20 (3-point shots) to start and we were still in the game," Calipari said Thursday of the 2010 game. "That tells me I must have had a hell of a team, and I did."
That team met a West Virginia team that slowed the game using a 1-3-1 zone defense that limited Kentucky’s transition chances and forced the Wildcats to shoot jump shots. At the bottom of that zone was Mazzulla, who had to scratch, claw and pray — quite literally — against Cousins on the block.
Mazzulla was listed — and listed generously — at 6-feet-2, 200 pounds. Cousins was listed at 6-11, 270.
"We were wrestling," Mazzulla said, laughing like it may have been more than that. "I fouled out. I got my money’s worth."
Cousins finished with 15 points but took just 11 shots. Wall finished with 19 points and Kentucky won the rebounding battle, 45-34, but West Virginia won the game. Mazzulla, getting extra time because West Virginia guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant was sidelined for a second consecutive game with a broken right foot, scored in double figures for the first time in 16 months.
"I just think we were all confident; we believed we could be the aggressors and set the tempo," Mazzulla said. "And that came from Huggins."
This West Virginia team is again outsized but is different; the Mountaineers are a full-court pressing team that leads the nation in steals. Against Kentucky on Thursday night, they want chaos at one end and a deliberate pace at the other.
It’s safe to say Huggins brought up the 2010 game with his team this week. Thursday night, West Virginia gets a chance to pull an even bigger upset.
"Kentucky is awfully good but I know West Virginia isn’t intimidated," Mazzulla said. "The guys are buying what Huggs is selling, and that’s when a team is dangerous — when it’s united, when everybody is on board.
"From where I sit now, it just makes me really proud. I was at the games (in Columbus) last weekend and just being able to watch those guys gut those games out was fun. West Virginia is a team the whole community embraces; the whole state, really. The fans are behind the players and I think this team has taken on the identity (Huggins) wants and the fans like. I expect it to be a fight."