CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the past month, stringy-but-stringent University of Washington senior Justin Holiday has shut down UCLA swingman Tyler Honeycutt, banged with beefy USC big man Nikola Vucevic and scratched and clawed to stay in front of 6-foot-10, 265-pound Georgia star Trey Thompkins.
Today, the 6-6 Holiday may as well be facing all three of them.
When the Huskies return to the court for a third-round game of the NCAA tournament, they’ll face one of the most formidable frontlines in college basketball. North Carolina boasts a rising star in freshman small forward Harrison Barnes, a 7-foot behemoth in Tyler Zeller, and a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking prodigy named John Henson.
College basketball fans and NBA scouts know all three players well, and – just in case – the trio reminded people of their potential by combining for 84 points and 36 rebounds in Friday’s win over Long Island.
“That’s as good a frontline as there is in the country,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils faced the trio three times this season. “And (North Carolina coach) Roy (Williams) does a great job of using them.”
The Huskies, who had 68 points and 29 rebounds as a team in Friday’s win over Georgia, know all too well what kind of a challenge Carolina’s big men present.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re real focused,” Holiday said. “It’s got to be all of us making sure we’re stopping those three guys, or at least slowing them down.”
Unlike the Long Island team that didn’t play anyone taller than 6-7 Friday night, the Huskies have some “bigs” that can match up, at least in height, with the Tar Heels.
In 6-9 Matthew Bryan-Amaning, 6-8 Darnell Gant and 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye, all of whom have started at times this season, the Huskies have some length at their disposal.
“Washington’s got some great bigs, and we’re going to have to work a lot harder against them to be able to do things,” said Zeller, a junior who joins Henson and Barnes as projected first-round NBA picks over the next two drafts. “They can block shots and change shots, and it will be more of a struggle.”
But the key to UW’s success may well be the 6-6, 185-pound Holiday.
While the senior is going to start off guarding Barnes, he could be called upon in the event that Henson and/or Zeller are taking it to the UW big men. Holiday said he’ll be ready.
“It’s something I’m comfortable with now,” said Holiday, who could also see time at power forward if the fast-paced Huskies try to outrun North Carolina today. “It’s something that gives our team a little different look and creates mismatches.
“It might seem weird to some people who look at my frame and don’t think I’d be able to do it, but I’m just trying to help my team. So that’s what I do.”
By all accounts, Holiday will open against the 6-8, 210-pound Barnes. The UNC freshman can score like Arizona All-America candidate Derrick Williams – another player against whom Holiday saw time this season – but has more of an inside-outside game. Barnes hit just less than 34 percent of his 3-point shots and had a season-high 40 points in a win over Clemson 2 1/2 weeks ago.
But the guys in the UNC paint are just as important. Zeller and Henson combined for 60 points in the Tar Heels’ win on Friday night.
“The Carolina bigs, they’re more explosive than the Pac-10 bigs like Vucevic and (UCLA’s) Josh Smith,” said the 260-pound N’Diaye, who was in junior college last spring when the Huskies got overpowered by a bigger West Virginia team in the Sweet 16. “They’re more explosive than any bigs we’ve seen. But we’re going to do the best we can and try our best to slow them down.”
It’s a challenge that the Huskies’ big men embrace.
“We’re real eager,” said Gant, who made only his second start since Dec. 11 in Friday’s win over Georgia. “You always want to play in games like this.
“You look at them, and they’re the best bigs that were recruited. When you were getting recruited, you felt like you were one of the best, and you got overlooked by schools like this. That’s why you want to play in these kinds of games.”
“If we shut those guys down,” Holiday said, “we have a pretty good chance of winning.”