Washington's Matisse Thybulle is college basketball's 'angel of chaos'

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Matisse Thybulle is a man in need of some shirts. The Washington Huskies senior phenom is 6-foot-5, which is problem enough. Add a 7-foot-1 wingspan to the equation, and you have a true sartorial challenge.

"It's been a struggle," he says. "None of my sleeves really fit me. Growing up, it was terrible. Now things are trending along having everything be tapered and tight-fitting. Before I'd be out there wearing these wide-ass shirts, just so my sleeves would be long enough, and I'd just be out there looking like a goofball. I look back at some pictures, and I'm like, 'My parents really told me I look cute?'"

The shopping is going to have to wait for now. The Huskies open Pac-12 tournament play on Thursday in Las Vegas, where they'll attempt to win the regular season and tournament titles for the first time since 2004-05. Beyond that awaits Washington's expected first NCAA tournament trip since 2011.

At the heart of that endeavor will be Thybulle, an All-America candidate who earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second time earlier this week. Thybulle is the only player in college basketball this season who ranks in the top 50 in both steals (first, 3.55 per game) and blocks (18th, 2.32 per game). He's the first player in 20 years with 100 steals and 70 blocks in the same season.

It's his multidimensional skills, way more than his modest scoring average of 9.5 points per game, that have gotten the attention of both the college basketball universe and NBA scouts. Thybulle was ranked No. 16 on ESPN's most recent ranking of the top players in college basketball. He also appears comfortably inside the top 50 of Jonathan Givony's most recent NBA mock draft:

How he got here is a surprise to even Thybulle, who has gone from obscure recruit to something of a college hoops phenomenon. Thybulle initially took up swimming as a youth in Australia. It wasn't until his family's return to the United States around the time of his eighth birthday, to the Seattle suburb of Issaquah, that Thybulle started on the hardwood. His introduction to the sport did not go well.

"I didn't think I was really that good," Thybulle says. "I was not talented. I could get a steal, but whether or not I made the layup on the other end was hit or miss. For me, it was like, defense is my thing."

His father, Greg, who is from Haiti and never played basketball, knew enough to emphasize the importance of defense, which was dictated by effort and intensity.

"I told him: There will always be someone who will shoot the ball better than you," Greg says, "but there will never be a better defender than you."

As Thybulle progressed through high school -- first at Skyline and then at Eastside Catholic outside of Seattle -- he grew into his imposing 6-5 frame with Inspector Gadget-like arms and the dexterity to match.

As a freshman in high school playing just his second game on the varsity, Matisse had his first taste of tangible success as a lockdown defender. With Skyline matched up against Bothell, he guarded future first-team Parade All-American, Washington Mr. Basketball and NBA lottery pick Zach LaVine.

A strong performance there got him on the radar of then-Washington coach Lorenzo Romar -- in the building to scout LaVine -- though Thybulle clearly had a long way to go.

"His athleticism just jumped out at you," Romar says of Thybulle. "He was raw, but you just felt like as he learns the game even more, and his basketball IQ catches up with his athleticism, he could be a heck of a player.

"He was just raw at the time. He was pretty much playing off of his athleticism."

Slowly but surely, Thybulle developed into a coveted recruit. Washington had to hold off a late charge from Gonzaga in order to secure his services.

Once he arrived on campus and began practicing against future first-round picks Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray -- No. 1 overall draft choice Markelle Fultz would arrive later -- Thybulle was hardly convinced that he would see the floor.

"My confidence comes and goes," he says. "I was like, 'Dang, I can't hang with these guys.' But I had to adjust if I wanted to survive.'"

Thybulle has done more than survive. In fact, he has not missed a single start over his entire four-year career, played under both Romar and current Huskies head coach Mike Hopkins. His rise as a player has mirrored that of UW, which went from 9 wins to 21 and an NIT berth last season to 24 and a conference title this season. Hopkins has relied heavily on Thybulle during the rebuild.

"He's really, really intelligent," Hopkins says. "His IQ defensively is on a different planet. He's got incredible anticipation skill. ... He's got the athleticism and the length to create an incredible steal."

When pressed for a comparison for Thybulle's skills, Hopkins reaches for an unusual one -- from another sport.

"[Hall of Fame NFL safety] Ed Reed kinda baited you into throwing a pass. ... Matisse can bait you. He can read you almost like a lion looking for the kill. He's got that ability," Hopkins says.

Thybulle says the killer instinct did not come naturally, and remains a work in progress.

"It was always so hard for me to flip that switch and not be that nice guy on the court and have a little dog out there," he says. "But as a kid, if I got a steal or a block or if I was actually scoring on someone, I would feel a little bad for the kid. Being able to grow out of that, it was a huge struggle for me and it still is, but I think I've been able to get a lot better."

Those who are close to Thybulle say his seeming mild manner masks an intense competitive fire.

"Matisse is hard-headed," Greg says. "He is extremely competitive. He really is disruptive. I call him 'the angel of chaos.'"

In order to achieve both the Huskies' goals and his own personal ones, that fire will have to continue burning bright. And to be sure, a player who has enjoyed a steady ascent to this point has much he still wishes to accomplish.

Where does Thybulle see himself in the next 5-10 years?

"Playing in the NBA," Thybulle says. "It's kind of crazy; like when your dream starts to become a reality, it's one of the weirder things to try and come to terms with. Because part of you always thought it might happen, but it's really hard to wrap my head around. I still haven't made it yet, so I just hope that I have had the opportunity to get there, and then if I get there, I want to stay as long as I can. I am incredibly blessed. I am so grateful."