INDIANAPOLIS - West Virginia plays for a spot in the national championship game tonight and it is quite possible that the play of Joe Mazzulla holds the key to the Mountaineers' chances of success.
Go ahead, pick which one of those might have seemed more absurd a year ago, a month ago or even a week ago.
Yet here the Mountaineers are, in a place they've not been in 51 years and throughout most of the last half century seemed unlikely ever to reach again. Shortly before 9 p.m. today - officially the tip time is 8:47, but that could vary - No. 6 West Virginia (31-6) faces blue blood No. 3 Duke (33-5) in the national semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium. Butler (32-4) and Michigan State (28-8) play in the first semifinal at 6:07 p.m. and the winners meet Monday night for the NCAA championship.
Just as surprising as the presence of long-suffering West Virginia in the Final F7our is the place Mazzulla holds in the matchup. The combative little point guard, who may never fully recover from a serious shoulder injury he suffered 16 months ago, may not be the linchpin for the Mountaineers, but consider his importance:
"He was terrific the last time we played,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I hope he's not quite as terrific this time.''
In truth, Mazzulla could blend into the background tonight and not be noticed. It would not be unusual. Consider that his 17 points a week ago against Kentucky were a career high and his 11 rebounds and eight assists in that 2008 game with Duke were also career bests. Mazzulla is averaging less than 16 minutes per game and only four points and 1.8 rebounds. He has nearly as many fouls this season (217) as assists (228).
Shoot, when he hit a 3-pointer against Kentucky it was the first jump shot he'd made since 2008.