LAS VEGAS — The two best defenders in Pac-12 history shared the floor Thursday afternoon.
The first was Matisse Thybulle, the Huskies forward whose five steals could be most aptly described as … normal. Nobody in the country can take the ball away like Matisse, and his swipes played a pivotal role in Washington’s 78-75 win over USC in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
The second was Gary Payton, the Basketball Hall of Famer who looked on from his courtside seat. Before his storied career with the Sonics began, Payton set the conference’s all-time steals record with 321 at Oregon State.
That seemed like an untouchable number at one point. Stanford’s Brevin Knight tallied 298 in his four-year career, but before this season began, the next closest was Eddie House at 258.
But then came Thybulle. Then came the most gifted bandit the Pac-12 has seen.
With 320 steals, Matisse will likely break Payton’s record against Colorado in the semifinals Friday. It’s hard to imagine. In fact, Thybulle never really did.
“If I’m being honest, when I came into this season, I didn’t think I was going to get there,” said Thybulle, who punctuated his fifth steal with a windmill dunk in the game’s final minutes Thursday. “I thought those numbers were untouchable. The fact that I’m this close is incredible.”
The other number Thybulle was referring to was Jason Kidd’s 110 steals during his sophomore year at Cal, a Pac-12 season record before Thursday. At 115 steals and counting, Matisse has cleared that bar by a good three feet.
The big prize, though, is the all-time mark — held by one of the most notorious trash-talkers in hoops history. But if you ask Payton about Matisse — the 6-foot-5 senior with a seven-foot wingspan — all you’re going to hear is praise.
“He has a gift for having a knack for the basketball,” Payton said. “With that length and the ability he has … he has great hands, and that makes it easier for him, and with that wingspan it makes it a lot easier because he can go out there and get basketballs.”
Payton didn’t want to get into who the best defender in conference history was Thursday. He finds such discussions pointless. He did, however, note that it’s hard to compare him with Thybulle because Matisse plays in a zone defense, whereas Payton mainly played man-to-man.
Then again, if you did compare the two from a pure numbers standpoint, you’d notice that Thybulle’s 73 blocks this season are 10 more than Payton had in his four-year college career. Seeing how the Huskies have played 32 games, Matisse is almost sure to finish the season as the first player in Division I history to average three steals and two blocks in a season.
The Pac-12 has never seen a defender like Thybulle. Shoot, college basketball has never seen a defender like Thybulle.
He passed one Hall of Fame point guard Thursday and will likely pass another Friday. And that second Hall of Famer? He’s not upset about it.
“I’m glad he’s going to be the one,” said Payton, noting that his agent, Eric Goodwin, is Thybulle’s godfather. “I wasn’t really paying attention to it (the steals record) when I played because I was playing defense. But if he breaks it, that’s great. Records are meant to be broken.”
You can tell that Thybulle is borderline shocked at what he’s been able to accomplish. To be mentioned in the same breath as some of the best basketball players ever wasn’t something he pictured. But the truth is, even if he scores a paltry four points as he did Thursday, he’s always one of the more impactful players on the floor.
None of the UW starters had as good of a plus/minus as Matisse did vs. USC. His box plus/minus, an advanced metric used to measure a player’s overall value, is the best in the Pac-12 by far. And though there are still two games for the Huskies to win in the conference tourney, the whole country will get a glimpse of his brilliance when the Big Dance rolls around next week.
In the meantime, Thybulle is going to keep “his head in the ground,” as he said, and focus on what’s next. He knows that’s how he got to the point where people are talking about him, Kidd and Payton in the same sentence, and that’s not about to change.
“I’m honored to be in the conversation with those guys. Not a lot of people get to be,” Thybulle said. “I just want to step up my game so they keep talking.”