It’s difficult for coach Greg McDermott to recall a specific performance or moment that best exemplifies the defensive prowess of Khyri Thomas.
And that’s a credit to Creighton’s junior workhorse.
“The same intensity, the same attention to detail, the same competitive spirit that we see on game night, we see every day in practice,” McDermott said. “There’s a reason he’s able to carry it over when the lights go on. It’s because he does it every single day.”
The Jays are at the point where they’re shocked if Thomas isn’t able to cut off a driving lane, dart around an off-ball screen or fight to knock a post player off the block. And when Thomas does the spectacular — a couple of weeks ago in practice, while guarding an inbounder along the baseline, he didn’t just deflect the pass, he caught the ball — those observing tend to just shake their heads and move on.
That’s become Thomas’ reaction, too.
He was named the Big East defensive player of the year Monday, earning the award for the second straight season. He shared it with two other players last year. He was the lone recipient this time.
And it’s exactly what he expected.
“It’s just my job,” Thomas said. “The team expects me to nag at those guys. I try to make it easy for everybody else, rebounding, making them take tough shots.”
The Omaha product’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.
Butler coach LaVall Jordan said Thomas is the best one-on-one defender he’s coached against since he was on staff at Michigan and the Wolverines had to contend with former Indiana star Victor Oladipo. Said Jordan: “You have to game plan around (Thomas) and his defense — and that is a huge compliment.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright said Thomas is a guy he wants on his team. Thomas’ mentality has left an impression on Wright for some time. “He can guard anybody,” Wright said.
And despite his lockdown ability, Thomas doesn’t overcommit, according to St. John’s coach Chris Mullin. He uses his strength, footwork and instincts to make opposing players uncomfortable. Said Mullin: “He has a great feel — when to deny, when to go for steals.”
Thomas insisted Monday, though, that he’s still evolving and improving.
He can still tell you what went wrong on a specific play weeks ago, when an opponent buried a shot in his face or maneuvered around him for a bucket. He still has trouble getting past losses like Saturday’s 85-81 defeat to Marquette, staying up late to run through all his own miscues and shortcomings.
But he admitted there was some gratification Monday.
Thomas is just the 10th player in Big East history to be named the league’s top defender more than once — joining the likes of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson.
He said last year that he didn’t anticipate winning the award. But he’s always taken pride in his defensive responsibilities, so when he shared it with Villanova’s Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges, he was appreciative of the recognition. “A good feeling,” Thomas said at the time.
But he quickly raised the standard for himself. The results have been on display all year long.
“I’m honored to have (the award) by myself,” Thomas said. “I worked hard, night in and night out, guarding those guys.”