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Matisse Thybulle’s ability to conjure instant defense makes him Washington’s big threat

Washington’s Matisse Thybulle jumps up to prevent a shot during a game against California on Jan. 19.

Washington forward Matisse Thybulle always watches the eyes of the players in front of him. They provide the first clue as to where the ball might be headed.

Additional hints come from the movement of the players behind him, which signals the offense’s intentions.

Thybulle waits for his moment and pounces accordingly, poking the ball away for a steal or arriving unexpectedly for a block.

“It’s like he knows where you want to go with the ball,” Huskies teammate David Crisp said, “before you do.”

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Thybulle materialized like a prop in a David Copperfield act last week in Las Vegas when USC was trying to rally in the final minute of a Pac-12 Conference tournament quarterfinal.

Trojans point guard Derryck Thornton stopped his dribble soon after he crossed midcourt, telegraphing his intent by turning his head toward teammate Jonah Mathews.

It was a play that Thybulle had seen USC run many times before. This time, he was ready to thwart it.

Thybulle caught a break because Trojans forward Nick Rakocevic, trailing on the play, momentarily screened Thornton’s view of Thybulle as Thybulle stood beyond the three-point line. As Thornton released the ball, Thybulle lunged for the steal that he turned into a windmill dunk that propelled the Huskies to victory.

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“I knew where he was taking the ball,” Thybulle said of Thornton, “so I was able to jump the gap.”

That’s become something of a routine for the senior who might be the nation’s top defender. Thybulle’s 322 career steals are a Pac-12 record that he could increase Friday in Columbus, Ohio, where the ninth-seeded Huskies (26-8) face eighth-seeded Utah State (28-6) in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Confronting the Aggies will be a two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year nicknamed “The Disruptor” by Washington coach Mike Hopkins. He’s become such a defensive menace that his teammates won’t even attack his side of the court in practice.

“You can’t throw his way, you just can’t,” Huskies forward Noah Dickerson said, “because he doesn’t look like he’s there but he’s there.”

Thybulle tends to appear wherever the ball does after flitting about the court like an overeager kindergartner.

“I try to mess with them,” said Thybulle, who blends a quick first step with a 7-foot wingspan. “I switch sides all the time, just trying to keep myself in the play, but I’m going to do whatever I can to get in their way and make life difficult for them.”

Every team the Huskies have faced knows what that feels like. Washington’s 2-3 zone defense accentuates Thybulle’s strengths by allowing him to attack multiple passing lanes while standing near the top of the key.

And attack he does. Thybulle’s 117 steals this season are a Pac-12 record, breaking the previous mark of 110 held by California’s Jason Kidd, and he’s the only Division I player in the top 50 nationally in both steals and blocks; his 3.44 steals per game lead the nation and his 2.26 blocks make him No. 20.

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Those statistics are a function of more than uncanny anticipation. At 6 feet 5, Thybulle possesses tremendous length that he combines with relentlessness and the ability to recover quickly. On the rare occasion he misjudges a play, he’ll almost always be there for what happens next.

Crisp recalled a play against Colorado last month in which Thybulle, standing near the Huskies’ free-throw line, chased down Buffaloes guard McKinley Wright in the frontcourt for a deflection that he turned into a dunk.

“It looked like there was no way he could have gotten the ball, like no way possible,” Crisp said, “but it was like some superhuman stuff.”

Thybulle’s anticipation comes in part from scouting opponents like an assistant coach. After Washington defeated USC last week, he stuck around T-Mobile Arena for the later games to watch the other teams’ tendencies.

Thybulle did slip outside the arena briefly for an interview on the Pac-12 Networks alongside another special guest. It was Gary Payton, the former Oregon State star and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer whose conference career steals record Thybulle would break two days later.

“It’s kind of surreal and I don’t think I’m going to be able to wrap my mind around it for a while,” Thybulle said. “[Payton] told me that if anyone was to break his record, he wanted it to be me or his son. That was a great compliment and means the world to me.”

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The duo has long had a connection because Payton’s agent, Eric Goodwin, is Thybulle’s godfather. But it was Thybulle’s father, Greg, who instilled in his son the importance of defense, explaining that it could land him a role on a team and offset his deficiencies as a shaky shooter.

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Thybulle has enhanced that aspect of his game as well, making him the kind of “three-and-D” prospect NBA teams covet. But first he intends to deflate a few more college opponents with steals and blocks that he turns into breakaway baskets.

“Those plays, for me, I love them because they’re so defeating if you’re the other team,” Thybulle said. “One, to get a shot blocked hurts but two, to give up a bucket in five seconds is even more frustrating and to know we’re sitting back there on defense because we want to get it again, there’s nothing better than that.”


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