Entering the weekend, the Washington Huskies had lost three straight games to fall to 1-3 in conference play.
After two straight 17-point losses in which the team looked lost and slow moving, the Huskies seemed to be at a loss for answers.
Coach Lorenzo Romar made only one major lineup change for the weekend, putting Justin Holiday, a wing who had seen mostly sparse playing time up to this point, into the starting lineup.
On Thursday, the Huskies beat Stanford by 30-plus; on Saturday they whipped Cal, the conference leader in the standings and the team picked by many to win the conference. The Huskies looked utterly dominant in both of their wins.
The players' increased focus and effort on the defensive end has generally been credited for this renaissance. Holiday's contribution has been described in this framework, cited as inspiring a higher level of play by the team.
Few writers have focused on the skills and abilities that Holiday brings to the lineup. The truth is, Holiday is a high-level player, and his skill set is an optimal fit in the Huskies' system and with the other players in the rotation. He has simply gone unnoticed heretofore because the most apparent part of a player's game—his scoring skills—is by far the weakest part of Holiday's game.
He is an elite defender; he is the rare player who is able to be both a top-notch disruptor and still shut down his own man. Holiday is a potent rebounder, grabbing boards he has no business getting to and creating loose ball situations on shots that should be easily possessed by opposing players.
He possesses an excellent body for defense and rebounding, as he is exceptionally long and quick and elevates quickly. He also has an excellent feel for the game. He understands where to position himself to get the most out of his gifts and is thus able to optimize his impact on the defensive end and on the boards.
As a result, his defensive range can be matched by relatively few in college basketball. He gets his hands on balls and in lanes that opposing teams don't expect him to reach and still recovers in excellent defensive position on his man. He gets boards or keeps balls alive that most players simply would not get to.
These are precious skills in Coach Romar's philosophy. His system emphasizes getting "points from chaos"—second and third-chance shots off offensive rebounds and fast break points off turnovers.
Holiday is an optimal catalyst for the system, increasing markedly the number of possession-changes and -maintenances the Huskies are able to create in a game. He produces far more steals and tips, blocks and boards than any other player on the team is capable of manufacturing.
His ability to take away a quarter of the floor tightens the space for his teammates to defend in, increasing their probability of generating turnovers and bad shots.
As long as Holiday is in the lineup, the Huskies will be a disruptive force on defense and strong on the glass. He is a game-changer.
Holiday is also a surprising contributor on the offensive end. His basketball IQ is very good, and he is a very adept passer. His play in the half court improves the flow and pace of the offense noticeably.
He improves spacing and lanes for his teammates by making the right cut and getting to the right spot on the floor; he settles down the offense in the half court with his ability to feed the post and his understanding of where to pass the ball to keep the offense moving.
While his scoring skills are presently limited, they are not required on a team with two high-level scorers and several other scoring-talented players. The skill set listed above is, perhaps, as valuable as another scorer in the Huskies' current rotation.
Holiday is a high-level college basketball player, and his impact on the lineup over the weekend was not a fluke. While the increased focus and effort of the team as a whole was vital to their weekend turnaround, just as essential was Holiday's presence on the floor.
The Huskies are a much better team with a player of Holiday's ability and presence in the lineup, and we can expect the team to continue to play at a high level while he is in the rotation.