The junior plays great defense, has a 7-foot wingspan and “he’s got incredible anticipation,” coach Mike Hopkins says.

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With his arms spread wide, Matisse Thybulle, the first obstacle in Washington’s 2-3 zone defense, looks like a giant spider in basketball shorts and sneakers.

The 6-foot-5 junior guard expands his radius when he extends his 7-foot wingspan. He bounces slightly while reading the eyes and body language of an opposing player — ready to intercept a pass and take it to the other end for a signature two-handed dunk.

“I like to play a little free safety and pick off the passes,” Thybulle said. “I never played football, but that’s how I envision my role.”

Thybulle, a freakishly gifted athlete with a 41¼ -inch vertical leap, has been the linchpin for a UW defense that ranks second in the Pac-12 allowing just 69.8 points in conference games.

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The undersized Huskies don’t overpower opponents in the post and they’ve been out-rebounded in 10 games, including a 20-rebound disparity in last Saturday’s loss to Stanford.

Washington (13-5, 3-2 Pac-12) overcomes its lack of size with an active defense that’s first in the Pac-12 with 161 steals and 102 blocks. UW ranks 15th and 19th among NCAA Division I teams in those categories, respectively.

And Thybulle is in the middle of it all.

“He means so much to our team not only on the defensive end,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “He can also score for us and make shots, but we tell him to focus on ‘I’m going to dominate defensively. I’m going to make a difference.’”

“When (he’s) out there, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, the Boogie Man is here.’ You know what I mean? He’s out there doing his Spider-Man thing and being that aggressor. It changes everything on the defensive end.”

Entering Thursday’s 7 p.m. game against Utah (10-7, 2-4) at Huntsman Center, Thybulle leads the Pac-12 with 56 steals, and his 3.1 steals-per-game average ranks fourth in NCAA Division I. He’s on pace to shatter UW’s season record of 67 steals, set by Bryant Boston in 1994-95, and would surpass former Husky Jamie Booker (195) and claim the school’s all-time steals record in just three seasons.

“He’s got incredible anticipation,” Hopkins said. “He has incredible feel, and he can cover space like this. You saw him, he was late and he still blocked the shot. That’s a God-given ability, and I tell him all the time, ‘Use it.’

“‘You’re a difference-maker and be proud of that.’ How many guys can be two-level players at a high level? He can be.”

If Thybulle maintains his current clip, he’ll finish the regular season with 96 steals.

Since the Pac-12 began tracking steals in 1978-79, only two players have finished with at least 100 in a season — Jason Kidd (110 in 1992-93) and Gary Payton (100 in 1989-90).

“The numbers will take care of themselves,” said Thybulle, who also leads UW with 30 blocks. “I don’t go into games saying I need to get this many steals or blocks. I just go into a game and try to get as many as I can.

“If I try to limit myself by numbers, I can mess myself up by being disappointed because I didn’t reach that. Or limit myself because I set a number that may have been too low.”

When Hopkins arrived last March after a 22-year stint in Syracuse, initially he wasn’t sure how to utilize Thybulle, who collected 65 steals last season.

Because of his height, Thybulle began on the back line of UW’s 2-3 zone when UW’s coaching staff urged Hopkins to move him to the front during a closed scrimmage against Boise State.

In a season-opening win, Thybulle collected five of UW’s 12 steals against Belmont, which finished with four thefts.

Around that time, Hopkins began referring to Thybulle as former NFL great Deion Sanders.

“Everybody has got a God-given ability, and he’s got incredible anticipation,” Hopkins said. “He covers space as good as anybody. We call him Deion because how many quarterbacks threw to Deion’s side? He changes everything.

“There’s a great stat that an NBA guy gave me about his block percentage and steal percentage. No one in the history of college basketball is doing what Matisse is doing. I just think he’s one of the best defensive players that I’ve ever coached.”

According to Via Stats Inc., Thybulle is the only player this season — and the first Pac-12 player since 1996-97 — to have season highs of 19 points, seven steals, five blocks, seven assists, seven rebounds and five three-pointers.

“He’s got a chance to be one of the best 2-guards,” Hopkins said. “His thing that sometimes holds him up is his belief.

“He can shoot it. He can defend. And he’s an incredible kid. He’s the most coachable. He’s got the three most important things for success at his position.”

The Huskies have pushed Thybulle, who is averaging 10.9 points, to expand his offensive skill set, with varying results.

He scored a season-high 19 points during a win against then-No. 2 Kansas and tallied 17 two weeks ago to lead UW in a comeback victory over Washington State. But he’s also shooting 27.8 percent (25 of 90) on three-pointers — a team low for UW players with at least five attempts.

However, on the defensive end, Thybulle has few peers.

“A steal is like my high,” he said. “I tell Jaylen (Nowell) all the time — for some reason when I get a steal he’s the one that’s up the court and ready — and I’m like bro, if I can get a steal and throw it up the court to you, then I’m happy. I don’t need to score.

“Growing up my dad was always telling me that defense wins games. He was like defense is going to get you on the court and defense is going to keep you on the court. So I just focused on that, and I fell in love with that part of the game.”

UW’s all-time steals leaders

Matisse Thybulle needs 35 steals to tie the UW career record.
Name Years Games Average Steals
1. Jamie Booker 1994-97 109 1.8 195
2. Justin Dentmon 2006-09 133 1.4 180
3. Venoy Overton 2007-11 135 1.3 177
4. Bryant Boston 1992-96 99 1.7 164
5. Matisse Thybulle 2015- 83 1.9 160

2017-18 NCAA steals leaders

Name School Steals Avg.
1. Joseph Chartouny Fordham 62 3.7
2. Jevon Carter West Virginia 62 3.4
3. Brian Beard Jr. Florida International 54 3.2
4. Matisse Thybulle Washington 56 3.1