MORGANTOWN - Even in losing a game it could have won at No. 23 Louisville Wednesday night, West Virginia found out some things about itself, most of them good.
At the top of the list was that the Mountaineers can compete in the toughest environments against the best teams in the Big East even with a short bench. Using only seven players, WVU came within one low-percentage Louisville shot of beating the Cardinals, who won 55-54 on Peyton Siva's crowded drive to the basket with 4.5 seconds to play.
The Mountaineers also learned that they might get some help down the stretch from Dalton Pepper. The sophomore, forced into a much bigger role with the suspension of leading scorer Casey Mitchell, had 10 points and should get more comfortable if he continues to play 20 minutes a game rather than just one or two at a time.
On the flip side, West Virginia (13-6, 4-3 Big East) reinforced the known, which is that this is not a team that shoots the ball well. With Mitchell sidelined indefinitely, that isn't likely to change.
But the most encouraging thing about that loss was what Joe Mazzulla did.
Mazzulla scored a career-high 18 points - all in the first half - and became, at least for one night, a scoring threat for which defenses have to account.
"I told him [the day before the game], 'You're our secret weapon,' '' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of Mazzulla. "He came into the game shooting point-zero-seven. 'They probably don't think you'll make one.' ''
Indeed, prior to making 2-of-3 3-pointers against the Cardinals, Mazzulla was shooting 7.7 percent from 3-point range, having made just one of his 13 attempts this season. Dating back to his sophomore season in 2007-08 - after which he had a career 3-point history of 16-for-47, a respectable 34 percent - Mazzulla had since made just three more in three seasons, thanks primarily to the serious shoulder injury he suffered during a game at Mississippi in December of 2008. He was 1-for-7 that year before being redshirted, 1-for-8 last season and then 1-for-13 this winter.
When Mazzulla does get cranked up, though, it seems to be at the right times. His only 3 last season was in the next-to-last game, the Mountaineers' win over Kentucky that sent them to the Final Four. Mazzulla was named the MVP of that game when he struck for a then-career-high 17 points.
He missed his first attempt Wednesday night, making him 3-for-29 the past three seasons. He's now on a 2-for-2 streak, though, after making a pair as West Virginia took control of the game with Louisville in the first half.
"He's really worked hard shooting the ball,'' Huggins said. "We changed his mechanics a little bit and actually changed them back to where they were before when he was making shots. And [against Louisville] he had as good a chance to make one as any of those other guys, that's for sure.''
Indeed, while Mazzulla finished the game 8-for-12 from the floor, the rest of the team was a combined 11-for-43 (25.6 percent). Kevin Jones was 3-for-13, John Flowers 2-for-8, Truck Bryant 1-for-8 and Pepper 3-for-11. Deniz Kilicli didn't even get off a shot against the tightly packed Louisville zone.
But Mazzulla is not the kind of player who can score points by creating shots. What he does best is take advantage of opportunities by driving to the basket when opposing defenders are more concerned with WVU's inside players. And Louisville clamped down on the opportunities by actually concentrating on Mazzulla and being aware of where he was at all times in the second half.
As a result, he attempted only two more shots and didn't score.
"They jammed it in. He couldn't get it in,'' Huggins said. "We have to make some shots. Nobody in this league is going to let you shoot layups the whole game. Except maybe us. We're very charitable.''