Late last month the coaching staff at George Washington University approached Justin Mazzulla, the freshman guard from Johnston and Bishop Hendricken.
Mazzulla had been coming off the bench for the Colonials but Maurice Joseph, in his second season as head coach, wanted to shake things up and decided to start Mazzulla on Jan. 31 against Duquense.
GW lost by two points at home, but Mazzulla had seven assists and just two turnovers as the point guard in his first college start.
He then started in the next game against Davidson and had five assists and one turnover in a loss. In his third start in a row, he helped GW snap a four-game losing streak with a win here on Feb. 7 against La Salle of Philadelphia as he had four assists, three rebounds and two points.
“When you come off the bench, you are an energy guy. But when you are a starter, you have to be steady all of the time,” said Mazzulla, standing outside of the GW locker room following the win over the Explorers. “It takes more of a sense of urgency and more focus on both sides of the floor as a starter.”
Joseph has made other changes to the starting lineup in the past few weeks. GW was 10-14 overall and 3-8 in the Atlantic 10 before a game on Saturday at George Mason in a conference rivalry.
What impresses Joseph about his freshman from Rhode Island?
“His toughness,” Joseph said. “Even if he was making mistakes his toughness was never affected by that. He is always positive in practice. He earned his right to grow his role on this team. He is a worker; he is a tireless worker and he has really progressed. He is now able to understand the game at the college level, the pace, Xs and Os. He is a coachable kid; he wants to be criticized, he wants to be coached.”
How did GW hear about Mazzulla, who was averaging 14.1 minutes, 2.2 points and had 1.6 assists in games through Feb. 9?
“Being on the Nike circuit, you get to see a lot of these kids at a young age,” Joseph said. “You have them in your database, you keep tabs on them. I wanted toughness, I needed grit. He wasn’t the best shooter, he wasn’t the best ball handler. But he had toughness. I am excited to see him progress through his career.”
Mazzulla was not highly recruited by Division I programs.
“I didn’t really go (visit) many schools. GW was one of the highest schools on my radar,” he said. “This is the only one I made an official visit to. I chose this school because you get the best of both worlds. You get a great education for free and you get basketball with a scholarship.”
GW hosted Fairmont State of West Virginia in November in an exhibition game.
The game drew a lot of fans from Rhode Island since Joe Mazzulla, the brother of Justin, is the first-year head coach at Fairmont State, which lost in the Division II national title game last March.
Justin said about 50 family and friends were on hand for that game.
The Atlantic 10 tournament will be held March 7-11, and for the first time, it will be in Washington.
The event will be held at the NBA home of the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena, just a few blocks from the George Washington campus.
“It is going to be great,” Mazzulla said. “We have our fans right here. It is going to be amazing. A lot of people support us.”
The defending champion in the Atlantic 10 and the tourney favorite in March will be Rhode Island, which has been ranked nationally the past few weeks. URI won at GW, 81-60, on Jan. 6 in the only regular-season meeting between the schools.
“I played against many of them,” Mazzulla said. “I kind of know them since I have been going to their games, since I live 30 minutes away. I played against them on travel teams.”