College Basketball Nation: 2010 NCAA Buffalo

Richard Mackson/US PresswireWVU's Joe Mazzulla led the Mountaineers to a second-round win over Missouri.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The lowest point wasn’t after he suffered the injury that some suspected could end his collegiate career.

It wasn’t when he turned himself into police after being charged with domestic violence.

It wasn’t when he was indefinitely suspended from the West Virginia basketball team.

For Joe Mazzulla, the lowest point was much subtler.

“I started to really shut out the people around me,’’ the WVU point guard said. “I didn’t want them in my life because I was so embarrassed. If they had given up on me, I don’t know what would have happened. I know I wouldn’t be here.’’

The much-maligned tandem of Mazzulla and Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant ground Missouri’s fastest 40 minutes of basketball to a halt, limiting the turnovers and controlling the tempo to lift WVU to a 68-59 win.

In the celebratory locker room, Mazzula sat amid a room of guys who buoyed their teammate along through his rough patches. There was also a coach, admittedly flawed himself, who challenged Mazzulla to get stronger.

Mazzulla doesn't know where he’d be without the Mountaineers but there’s no question the Mountaineers wouldn’t be headed to the Sweet 16 without Mazzulla.

“All we’ve been hearing about all year is how West Virginia doesn’t have any point guards,’’ Bryant said. “All I can say is we’re winning, we’re No. 6 in the country, the No. 2 seed and we’re in the Sweet 16. We can’t be that bad.’’

Challenged by Bob Huggins to stand in the face of the Tigers’ pressure, the two players considered the weakest link on the Mountaineers' roster combined to commit only three turnovers, part of a tiny 10-turnover afternoon for West Virginia.

That marks the fewest mistakes a team has made against Mizzou this season and continues an obvious trend: When the Tigers don’t draw turnovers, they don’t win. WVU, Nebraska (twice) and Baylor all made 13 or fewer mistakes against Missouri. The Tigers were 1-3 in those games.

The Tigers tried frantically to speed the game up, amping their pressure in the final seven minutes and cutting the lead to 56-53.

But they could never entirely take West Virginia out of its game. The Mountaineers inbounded the ball to Da’Sean Butler, who handled the initial trap and then passed to Mazzulla or Bryant to start the offense.

“We talk about his 29 points, but he’s the guy who really handled the double-team for us,’’ Bob Huggins said of Butler. “And then Truck and Joe both did a good job advancing the ball.’’

To earn their coach’s high praise, both Mazzulla and Bryant had to take a twisted path. Mazzulla’s wounds were both bad luck and bad behavior. He fractured the growth plate in his right shoulder in early December of last season. After learning that surgery only had a 50-50 success rate, decided to hold off on the repair and try to play through it, but within two weeks, he elected to take a medical redshirt.

“By far one of the toughest people we have on this team,’’ Butler said. “He’s played with one arm the majority of the year. He hasn’t complained about it or cried or anything.’’

A month after the season ended, Mazzulla was charged with a domestic attack outside of a club in Morgantown. It was Mazzulla’s second strike. A year earlier, he and teammate Cam Thoroughman were charged at a Pittsburgh Pirates game for getting in a scuffle with a police office and for underage drinking.

“Now that I’m on the other side I can say it; I don’t think you can become a man or a woman without making mistakes,’’ Mazzulla said. “I regret what I did but I don’t regret learning from my mistakes.’’

Bryant’s challenges were far less overwhelming, but no less trying.

A prolific scorer out of St. Raymond’s High School in the Bronx, he has logged plenty of minutes in Huggins’ doghouse.

Forced to shoulder much of the point guard duties while Mazzulla recovered, he struggled with scoring while also distributing the basketball and Huggins let him know it. Often.

“He has a way of getting his point across -- in practice, on the court, when you’re sleeping, whenever,’’ Bryant said. “It took me a long time to get used to it. I talked to Nick Van Exel a lot. He told me I had to learn to let it go in one ear and out the other, but it was hard. There are still times I find myself getting caught up in what he’s saying instead of why he’s saying it.’’

What Huggins said before the Mizzou game, Mazzulla and Bryant agreed couldn’t be printed. But compared to the pressure their coach put on them, the Mizzou pressure defense was a walk in the park.

“Everyone sees him on television, where he’s yelling 90 percent of the time and coaching 10 percent; in practice it can be completely the opposite but he always has a way of motivating you,’’ Mazzulla said. “He’ll just throw out little innuendos -- ‘You can’t do this,’ whatever -- during practice. He’s really good at getting the most out of you.’’

And in return, Mazzulla is getting the most out of his second chance.

Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesSyracuse's Wes Johnson (4) really came through for the Orange, playing all 40 minutes in their 87-65 win over Gonzaga.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- There was a point this season when Wes Johnson couldn’t even pick up his laptop. His hand, injured in a fall at Providence, was swollen and sore to the point of uselessness.

When he went up to shoot, he could barely feel the ball in his hand. When he went to practice, there was more he couldn’t do than he could do.

Note to the teams heading to Salt Lake City: His hand is all better now, thanks.

Johnson scored a career-high 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting and added 14 rebounds to lead an 87-65 humiliation of Gonzaga usually reserved for first-round games.

In a game when the Orange were squeezed playing without Arinze Onuaku and relying heavily on six guys, Johnson played all 40 minutes.

“Yeah, I think it’s fine now,’’ Johnson said with a grin when asked about his hand.

That’s almost as critical a bit of news as the status of Onuaku’s leg injury.

The Syracuse nation has been obsessed with Onuaku’s leg since he injured it in the Big East tournament quarterfinal against Georgetown. The Orange faithful should have been more concerned about Johnson’s ability to return to form since late February.

Johnson is on the eve of becoming a very rich man in the NBA, and it's rare that a national championship team doesn’t have a star on its roster.

North Carolina had a roster full of them in 2009. Ditto Kansas in 2008, Florida in 2007 and 2006, North Carolina in 2005, and Connecticut in 2004. In 2003, of course, Syracuse had Carmelo Anthony.

As well as all the parts working together for Syracuse, they work a whole lot more effectively when Johnson plays as he did against the Bulldogs.

Only Blake Griffin (30 points, 14 rebounds, 80 percent shooting against Syracuse, and 33 points, 17 rebounds, and 70 percent shooting against Michigan in 2009) has had a more productive NCAA tournament day since 2000.

“If he hadn’t had this injury, he would be up at an even higher level now than he is,’’ Jim Boeheim said. “He was playing at a really high level and getting better. That just took him right back down for eight games. He’s just getting back.’’

Back at just the right time, too.

The Orange will need everything Johnson can give over the next two weeks. With a short turnaround here -- Syracuse plays Thursday in Salt Lake City -- it would seem a long shot that Onuaku will be ready to go. He hasn’t practiced yet and Boeheim talked about the importance of getting freshman DaShonte Riley even stronger in the next week.

Syracuse can win without Onuaku -- just ask Gonzaga -- but the Orange has to win differently.

The porous Zags’ defense allowed the Orange to shoot 54 percent from floor and nail 12 3-pointers, the most by a Cuse team in NCAA tournament history.

Syracuse can’t count on that happening every night.

What might happen, though, is the 38 points the Zags were able to score in the paint. Rick Jackson got smacked with his third foul with 9:53 left in the half, pushing Riley into duty. He performed admirably, but he is hardly the anchor that Onuaku is, and it would be unfair to expect him to be. The freshman played in 125 minutes in the regular season.

“That never would have happened; (Arinze) doesn’t allow that to happen,’’ Boeheim said. “He controls that paint area. They were able to overcome it because we shot the heck out of the ball. If we don’t shoot the heck out of the ball, then those points down there are really going to hurt you.’’

Unless the Cuse can wish upon their star.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A few quick observations from a competitive (finally!) game here in Buffalo:

  • West Virginia is doing exactly what it needs to do to beat Missouri: Limit the chaos. The Mountaineers have just six turnovers and are actually beating the Tigers in points off turnovers, 9 to 3. Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant both have been steady at the point, with no miscues between them in 10 minutes of play apiece.
  • The Tigers better figure out a way to handle Da'Sean Butler. He was quiet against Morgan State with only nine points. He's making up for it today with 19 in the first half. The Mizzou scouting report, I'm guessing, contained a few lines on Butler. Better get back to it in the second half.
  • Missouri isn't going to beat West Virginia in a half-court game. The Mountaineers 1-3-1 zone is just tricky enough to stymie an average shooting team like the Tigers. Mizzou needs to force the tempo and force WVU out of its comfort zone. When J.T. Tiller only has one steal at the break, that's not a fast enough 20 minutes of basketball.

Photoblog: Battle for possession

March, 21, 2010
J.T. Tiller and Cam ThoroughmanRick Stewart/Getty ImagesMissouri's J.T. Tiller fights for a loose ball against Cam Thoroughman in the first half Sunday.

Final: Syracuse 87, Gonzaga 65

March, 21, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Some quick observations from a second-round game that looked a heckuva lot more like a 1-16 first-round game (somewhere Vermont is smiling for giving Syracuse a tougher game than the Zags).
  • Kentucky's dismantling of Wake Forest was impressive, but in my book, this was even more impressive. Playing with essentially five guys and a little bit of DaShonte Riley, Syracuse completely humiliated Gonzaga. Smoked 'em offensively, schooled 'em defensively. If anyone thought the injury to Arinze Onuaku took the Cuse out of the national championship derby, I'm guessing they're rethinking that now.
  • The fact that Wes Johnson is back to his old self is far more significant than the status of Onuaku's leg. Not to discredit the importance of Onuaku, but Johnson at his best means a lot more in the grand scheme of things for the Orange. And the way he played today -- 31 points on 11 of 16 shooting, 4 of 6 from the arc and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes -- should send out a flare to everyone else left in the bracket.
  • The Orange only go six deep without Onuaku but five of those six can dominate the game at any time. They practically took turns against Gonzaga -- Johnson to start, Brandon Triche midway through the first half, Andy Rautins to begin the second. Sprinkle in a little Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson and you realize just why this team is so hard to beat.
  • I'll be curious to see if Onuaku can play in Salt Lake City. That regional begins on Thursday and Onuaku hasn't practiced since injuring his leg against Georgetown more than a week ago. Do the Orange absolutely need him? Apparently not. Would it be good to have him when you push into the second weekend? Absolutely.
  • As for Gonzaga? Well the band was fun. Seriously, this is a team that can be fun to watch offensively but also is a team that was absolutely run out of the gym by Duke. Shouldn't be terribly surprising this happened. The Zags don't play enough defense which means when they can't shoot -- and they couldn't have scored with a ladder to the hoop against Syracuse -- they can't win.

Photoblog: Not feeling so sweet

March, 21, 2010

Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesGonzaga coach Mark Few shouts from the bench during the Bulldogs second round game against Syracuse.

Halftime: Syracuse 47, Gonzaga 32

March, 21, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A few halftime observations from an entertaining and fast-paced early game here at the HSBC Arena.

  • Mark Few ought to forbid his guards from shooting. Flat-out say no. They are 2 of 9 from the arc and absolutely failing miserably at penetrating the Syracuse zone. After working patiently to get the ball inside to Robert Sacre and Elias Harris to start the game, the Zags are launching jumpers to the sheer joy of the Orange. All this while Rick Jackson sits on the bench with foul trouble.
  • The Zags have 20 points to Syracuse's 16 in the paint. It's a clear advantage that worked well early and is the only way Gonzaga will get back in this game. The Bulldogs need to try and force Jackson into his fourth foul.
  • Credit DaShonte Riley. He's not exactly art in motion but the little-used freshman stemmed the tide ably while Jackson hit the seats. He has an assist and a steal, and yes, a few mistakes, but the Orange aren't any worse for it.
  • Wes Johnson looks like the guy who made jaws drop in November/December. The electrifying soon-to-be draft pick has 15 points, shooting with the kind of confidence he showed before a hand injury made everything so difficult. The Zags don't have anybody who can guard him but have done a poor job of even trying, leaving him wide open for three 3-pointers.
  • A little defense wouldn't be a bad thing for the Bulldogs, either. Syracuse is torching the Zags with 60 percent shooting from the floor and 50 percent from the arc. No way no how Cuse loses when it shoots like that.

Photoblog: Taking flight

March, 21, 2010
Wes JohnsonMichael Heiman/Getty ImagesSyracuse's Wes Johnson soars to the hoop against Gonzaga in the first half Sunday.

Previewing Sunday in Buffalo

March, 21, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A quick glance at the two second-round games on tap here Sunday:

Syracuse vs. Gonzaga

Key to the game: How Gonzaga handles the Syracuse zone will be critical. The Zags are an excellent shooting team, connecting at nearly 50 percent from the floor. They shot well against Florida State, one of the top defensive teams in the country, in the first round. But FSU isn’t Syracuse. Beating the zone requires patience and a willingness to make the extra pass every single possession.

“The only way you’re going to beat that thing, the teams that have done that, have stepped up and made shots,’’ coach Mark Few said. “We won’t go away from that. I think all of our guys will be key tomorrow.’’

Player(s) to watch: Robert Sacre and Elias Harris. How the big men play for Gonzaga will be critical. Without Arinze Onuaku, Syracuse will roll out a considerably smaller lineup, which should give the Zags an advantage. The two big men could wear out or foul out Rick Jackson, forcing little-used freshman DaShonte Riley into serious minutes. But even more, the two bigs will need to be effective inside to crack the Syracuse zone. Their ability to double-up on Florida State – each had 13 – opened the game up for the Bulldogs.

Who has the edge: This could be a lot closer than people think but I believe the Orange, even as squeezed as they are without Onuaku, will win this one. They are capable of getting up and down when they need to, but can always call on their zone defense as a neutralizer. Besides, who from Gonzaga is going to handle Wes Johnson?

Missouri vs. West Virginia

Key to the game: Whenever Missouri takes the court, its pressure is always the key. The Tigers scored 20 points off turnovers against Clemson and 22 on fast breaks. Because Missouri is so good at not making mistakes itself -- it boasts the second-best turnover margin in the country -- limiting errors is critical. West Virginia can’t get baited into playing at the Tigers’ frenetic pace and absolutely has to keep the game in the halfcourt.

“We’re going to need everybody to help,’’ WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “They use their bench, so we’re going to have to use our bench. We understand that. But the other thing, in all honesty, timeouts in this tournament are about an hour and a half, so you have a lot of time to catch your breath.’’

Player to watch: Joe Mazzulla. He doesn’t start at point for the Mountaineers, but for the past three games he has logged more minutes than Truck Bryant. He’s a steadying presence and West Virginia will need every bit of his calm against the Tigers’ pressure. In a high-intensity Big East tournament title game, he played flawlessly, dishing out seven assists in 29 minutes. He didn’t commit a single turnover. He’ll need all of that and more against the Tigers.

Who has the edge: Tough call here but I’ll lean toward Mizzou (slightly). The Tigers played with perfectly contained freneticism against Clemson and could really be disruptive against a West Virginia team that doesn’t have great ballhandlers to begin with.

Bad News Bulldogs

March, 20, 2010
Matt BouldinRick Stewart/Getty ImagesWhile Matt Bouldin's off-court demeanor is laid-back, his game-time persona is anything but relaxed.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The first time she saw her son’s Gonzaga team take the court, Matt Bouldin’s mother, Dana, tagged the Bulldogs the Bad News Bears.

“We were scrimmaging Texas and they’re there, all business, dunking and running and we’re just this group of guys, most of us foreigners, just running around doing our thing,’’ Bouldin said.

Robert Sacre prefers "pack of goofballs," for his merry band of misfits, a roster made up of one German, four Canadians, the “single most laid-back guy in the world" in Steven Gray and the mop-topped Bouldin.

“Oh my God, I have no idea how the coaches recruited this team,’’ Sacre said. “What were they thinking? We must be the most random team in America.’’

The most random team in American may also be the most relaxed. Fitting their West Coast granola-crunching, Earth-loving zip code, the Bulldogs’ vibe is decidedly chill.

They spent their time on the interview dais cracking jokes and busting each other up, acting like they were readying for a CYO scrimmage rather than an NCAA Tournament second-round game against top-seeded Syracuse.

“I don’t see a reason to get all worked up about things,’’ said Gray, of whom Mark Few said he needs to check for a pulse sometimes. “I don’t really get too worried or too excited about things. That just takes a lot of energy. I think we’re all kind of like that.’’

It’s an attitude that will serve them well in Buffalo where the laid-back Zags will find a charged-up atmosphere. With just 120 miles separating campus and the HSBC Arena, Syracuse might as well be stepping onto the Carrier Dome floor. Save for the tiny pocket of Gonzaga fans that trekked 3,000 miles to see their team, the arena will be practically painted in orange.

It would be enough to frazzle most teams but Gonzaga’s goofy crew has been well tested.

The Zags played a schedule only John Chaney would love -- at Michigan State and in Hawaii in November; in New York against Duke, home against Oklahoma and then at Illinois two days later in December, and hey just for fun, a February date at Memphis.

Nothing is close to Spokane but the Bulldogs go out of their way to rack up frequent-flyer miles.

“Whether it’s flying to Maui or flying to Memphis or flying to Madison Square Garden, we try to play in a lot of these games,’’ Few said. “The reason I do it is to help us prepare for the NCAA Tournament.’’

It has, as most people know, worked pretty well. Gonzaga has gone from Cinderella to program to be reckoned with thanks to a four Sweet 16 berths in the past 10 years.

For this team the brutal schedule has been particularly helpful. Gonzaga has just two seniors and one junior on its roster, the rest made up of freshmen and sophomores getting their first real playing experience.

Mix in the United Nations representation -- Sacre is from Vancouver by way of Louisiana, Mangisto Arop from Ontario, Bol Kong and Kelly Olynyk from British Columbia and star rookie Elias Harris from Germany -- and the trips are even more critical.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,’’ said Bouldin, one of the two seniors. “We just really like each other. I mean, you’re sort of forced to get along when you’re on the road as much as we are, but this is a really good group of guys.’’

Don’t let the fun fool you, though. The Zags might like to play loose and free-spirited on offense and push the tempo, but they are all business when the whistle blows.

Gray scored a very unlaid-back 15 points against Florida State and Sacre withstood the bumping and pushing of the Seminoles big man to come up with 13 points and nine boards.

“We definitely know how to flip the switch,’’ Gray said. “We like to play with a sense of relaxed calm on offense, but high energy on defense. We know when to be serious.’’

Final: Syracuse 79, Vermont 56

March, 19, 2010
BUFFALO -- Some quick thoughts from the end of a long day, especially if you're a Vermont fan.

  • Not sure what Syracuse can glean from this game. Certainly for a team whose vulnerabilities were exposed with back-to-back losses and a critical injury, the thumping of Vermont is a nice salve but in terms of preparation for the next game? This isn't getting it done. Vermont doesn't exactly play at Gonzaga's speed.
  • I'm sure Jim Boeheim will hone in on the momentary lapses of focus his Orange displayed. Syracuse was never going to lose or really even be challenged but they did ease off the pedal every now and again and it's a habit the Orange can't afford to get in as the competition ratchets up considerably here in two days.
  • Judging by this game, I'm going to guess that Boeheim is going to run with a six-man lineup as long as he can while Arinze Onuaku rehabs his quad injury. DaShonte Riley only played a handful of minutes in a game that was never in trouble. Unless Rick Jackson or someone else gets in serious foul trouble, I expect Boeheim to stick with his five starters plus Scoop Jardine off the bench. The question is: Will it work against a Gonzaga team that likes to get up and down the floor? We'll see.

Halftime: Syracuse 37, Vermont 25

March, 19, 2010
BUFFALO -- Some quick reactions from halftime:

  • Jim Boeheim looks like he ate a bucket of lemons and for good reason. Syracuse will likely win this game going away, but the Orange certainly got a little full of their wonder late in the second half, letting Vermont turn a 25-point hole with 6:39 left into a respectable 12-point deficit by the break.
  • Boeheim looked especially thrilled when the ridiculously athletic Marqus Blakely threw down not one, not two but three monster dunks -- including two alley oops. Blakley has nine points early.
  • Think it would behoove Boeheim to get DaShonte Riley some minutes in the second half. The Orange don't need him here, but they might against Gonzaga, and it would serve the freshman well to play more than mop-up minutes. He was in for three minutes in the first half. He needs work with the starters if Arinze Onuaku is going to be out long term.
  • In the true spirit of a Philly guard, Scoop Jardine is like a firecracker. He ignites Syracuse from the bench, plays with a speed that leaves people flat-footed (literally in this game) and is fearless and brash. One of the most fun guys to watch in college basketball right now if you enjoy players who play with passion and energy from the opening tip.
BUFFALO -- Robert Sacre, Canadian native, knew exactly what to expect when Gonzaga took the floor against the big bodies of Florida State.

[+] EnlargeMatt Bouldin
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesBouldin led Gonzaga with 17 points in a close win over Florida State.
“I knew coming to Buffalo it was going to be a Sabres game, basically,’’ Sacre said.

The Zags almost let one slip through the five hole.

Gonzaga surrendered all but the last bits of an 18-point lead before finally staving off Florida State, 67-60.

Gonzaga won by doing what no one else has been able to do against the Seminoles –- shoot the ball. The Bulldgos sliced and diced the Seminoles for 50 percent shooting for the game, ending a run of 67 consecutive opponents held under 50 by FSU.

And they did it by making the easy buckets. Sacre and Elias Harris combined for 26 points (13 apiece) as the Zags scored 24 of their points in the paint and just nine from the arc.

“Anytime you get easy buckets and shoot high-percentage shots, it’s a lot easier,’’ Matt Bouldin.

Still the comeback or near choke (depending on your team colors) was slightly alarming. Sharpshooting Deividas Dulkys nearly single-handedly brought the Seminoles back, scoring 11 in the final five minutes, including a 3-pointer that kissed off the glass.

“I thought, ‘He didn’t. … he didn’t just bank that in?'’’ Steven Gray said.

The Seminoles inability to hit free throws in an endgame clank fest and the late rally ended up being their undoing but not before the Zags were forced to get their act back together.

Gonzaga travels the country in the regular season just to prepare for the rigors of March and while Mark Few praised his team’s poise, the end game should raise a few red flags considering what could be next -– No. 1 seed Syracuse in essentially a home game.

“It was a little combination of things," said Gray, who finished with 15 points. “We had a little drought there and I think we also got a little panicked and rushed. We forced some things that we shouldn’t have."

BUFFALO -- Some quick post-game reactions.

  • Note to Gonzaga: This sort of effort won't fly against Syracuse (presuming the presumable win over Vermont). The shooting part is great, but the complete loss of focus late and the crummy defensive effort in the end will equate to a disaster against the Orange. Syracuse isn't going to let Gonzaga shoot 50 percent from the floor, either so relying on scoring won't get it done.
  • Elias Harris has to be involved for 40 minutes, not 20. Harris had 11 at the halftime break and 11 still with under four minutes to play. He finished with 13. The big man is critical to Gonzaga's success. Ditto Robert Sacre. He only had 5 in the second half. Again, if the Zags play Syracuse and the Cuse don't have Arinze Onuaku, Gonzaga has to be able to expose the inside.
  • Give credit to Florida State for revving up its engine, but also a smack on the head for not playing hard until there was only eight minutes left in the game in an eventual 67-60 loss. If FSU wants to be taken seriously as a player in college basketball, the Seminoles need to come out with a fire from the opening tip.
  • The Seminoles had plenty of opportunities to grab this game, but they clanked free throws and turned the ball over too often.
  • Sophomore Deividas Dulkys nearly summoned a comeback by himself. The sharpshooter scored 11 points in the final five minutes to reignite the crowd and the Seminoles. But again, too little too late.

Halftime: Gonzaga 35, FSU 19

March, 19, 2010
BUFFALO -- Some quick halftime observations here from the nightcap opener:

  • Florida State is winning the battle but not the war. This game is playing at a pace to the Seminoles' liking but while FSU is limiting Gonzaga's possessions, it's not stopping the scoring. Gonzaga is shooting 54 percent for the half, a significant number considering the Seminoles have held their last 67 opponents to under 50 percent from the floor.
  • The problem for defensive-minded Florida State is scoring. Sometimes you have to score in this game and the Seminoles can't. Florida State is 6 of 28 from the floor and scored its fewest points in a half since Marquette held the Noles to 18 in November.