You have doubtless heard, countless times, about a coach preaching "toughness" to his team. A team or player needs to be tougher, or their toughness is being questioned.
Are coaches talking about Chuck Norris toughness? Do they mean Jack Youngblood playing on a broken leg in the NFL playoffs? Are they referring to Ronnie Lott having his finger amputated so he could play a football game? Or is it Randall "Tex" Cobb taking a bloody beating in the ring but never going down to the canvas?
What exactly is toughness in the context of college basketball?
In the Gonzaga-Tennessee game, while the Volunteers were bending over at the waist, 7-foot-5 reserve big man Will Foster dove on the floor for a loose ball, secured the ball and passed it out, and Gonzaga got a layup and a foul in transition on the other end. Gonzaga went to overtime and eventually won. Without Foster's "toughness" play, the Zags go home with a loss.
Here are just a few examples of how you can demonstrate true "toughness" in college basketball:
• Going after rebounds with both hands.
• Stepping to the line and knocking down pressure free throws, especially when tired.
• Talking on defense and letting your teammates know that you are there in case they get beat.
• Bump and stand up a cutter.
• Close out to a shooter under control.
• Sticking with your team's defensive principles, and doing it under pressure.
• Having a sense of urgency to stop the other team from scoring, not just your man.
• Getting on the floor for a loose ball.
• Taking a charge.
• Getting down in a stance and staying there.
• Finishing plays.
• Setting up your man and making hard cuts.
• Throwing the pass that leads to the assist.
• Getting your teammates together and keeping them together on the road.
• Not allowing yourself to get screened.
• Moving on to the next play, and displaying positive body language to give confidence to your teammates.
• Being alert on both ends of the floor.
• Filling your tank on the defensive end, and not the offensive end.
• Putting a body on somebody.
• Jumping to the ball, and taking away the ball side of the cut.
• Catching and facing the defense against pressure, not catching and dribbling.
• Not letting a ball handler split a trap.
• Taking good shots, and having the judgment to pass up challenged ones.
Toughness isn't just about being physical. It is far more than that. Here are some of the toughest players I have seen this year:
• Patrick Patterson, Kentucky
• James Harden, Arizona State
• Levance Fields, Pittsburgh
• Sherron Collins, Kansas
• Kyle Singler, Duke
• Tyler Smith, Tennessee
• Rene Rougeau, UNLV
• Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
• Stephen Curry, Davidson
• Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia
• Joe Krabbenhoft, Wisconsin
• K.C. Rivers, Clemson
• Osiris Eldridge, Illinois State
• Damion James, Texas
• Wesley Matthews, Marquette
• Darren Collison, UCLA
• Jeff Teague, Wake Forest
• Dante Cunningham, Villanova
• Sam Young, Pittsburgh
• You can spend your entire life playing, coaching and/or teaching basketball, and you will encounter situations that throw you. Or at least, throw me.
At the end of regulation of the Gonzaga-Tennessee game, Matt Bouldin drove the lane and shot a contested layup over Tennessee defenders. As the ball was going over the cylinder without touching the rim, Tennessee's Tyler Smith reached through the net and rim. Gonzaga coach Mark Few jumped on the officials and said they should have called goaltending.
Really, the issue was not goaltending, but basket interference. I was under the mistaken belief that contact with the rim or net while the ball was in the cylinder was basket interference. The reason I understood it that way is because that is the way it used to be in the rule book.
Well, the rule has changed. According to Rule 4, Section 5, basket interference occurs only when the ball is actually touched in the ring or the cylinder (which extends from the ring to the ceiling), or if the ring is pulled down and makes contact with the ball before it returns to its original position. It is just an odd quirk in the rules, and if a player grabs the net and is able to get the ball out without actually touching it, it would be a legal play.
In addition, if a player slaps the backboard and vibrates the ball out of the basket, the only remedy is for the official to call a technical foul, but not basket interference. I have seen countless times when a defender pulls on the net or puts his hand through the net without touching the ball, and it was called basket interference. But it hasn't been lately because the rule has changed. The officials, as they most often do, got it right and according to the rule.
• Kentucky may not be the best team at taking care of the ball, but the Wildcats are doing many other things really well. The Wildcats are very good defensively, solid on the glass, efficient shooters and have two bona fide stars in Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.
If Kentucky does a better job of taking care of the ball, the Cats can beat anyone in the SEC and will make it to the NCAA tournament. While scratching and clawing to get into the NCAAs is not what Kentucky fans are used to, it speaks well of this group of players that they are fighting and getting better. Patterson is a horse. He is shooting over 70 percent from the floor and averaging more than 19 points, almost 10 rebounds, just under three assists and two blocks per game, and he is doing it in a crowd. There isn't a tougher or more efficient player in the country than Patterson.
• I give Rick Pitino a ton of credit for sticking with junior guard Edgar Sosa. The point guard is emotional and hard to figure out, but Pitino started him in the second half against UNLV on blind faith alone, and started the enigmatic guard against Kentucky. Pitino's faith paid off, as Sosa hit the game-winning shot and played his best game in the last two years. Maybe that will snap him out of his personal slump and get his head up.
• How did the annual questions about the possibility of a team going undefeated (in this case, North Carolina) morph into the expectation that the Heels would do it? UNC lost to Maryland and Duke last year in Chapel Hill, and the Heels still made it to the Final Four as a title favorite. After North Carolina's loss, I heard that any team could beat any other team on a given day. How true. But there are not many "given days" against a team like North Carolina. Last year, Memphis went 38-2, Kansas went 37-3, North Carolina went 36-3 and UCLA went 35-3. That is only 11 "given days" out of 156. Just one unranked team had a "given day" against those Final Four teams.
• Gonzaga's Austin Daye is a long way away from being NBA-ready. Daye has all the talent in the world, but he needs to learn how to manage himself in a tough game and how to make the easy play in addition to the tough ones. Going into the Tennessee game, Day had a grand total of 10 offensive rebounds. He had more blocked shots than that. Daye will be very, very good, but he needs to take his time. There is no need to rush this kid to the next level.
• Wake Forest may be the most talented team in the ACC. The Demon Deacons are really young, but there is a ton of length, size, skill and athleticism on that roster. None of them are shaving, but they are really good.
• Arizona was as soft as tissue paper against Stanford. That was not the same team that beat Kansas and Gonzaga. Give the Cardinal credit for a good bounce-back win, but Arizona had very little fight and energy in that one.
• There is not a single player in the Big Ten averaging double-digit rebounds. That surprised me. Heck, Pitt's DeJuan Blair averages close to six offensive rebounds. The Big East has four guys averaging double-figure rebounds, and the fifth-leading rebounder in the conference would be leading the Big Ten.
• Davidson is not only a well-coached team with really good players, but also a team full of great kids, including Max Paulhus Gosselin. But the senior from Canada is getting a reputation for playing on the fringe of dirty, and it is hard to mount a defense for him. Gosselin was tossed from a game against NC State for a flagrant and unnecessary foul, and against Duke he delivered a purposeful elbow to Kyle Singler's chest while Singler was setting a screen. There can be a fine line between tough and dirty, but I fear Gosselin is treading too close to that line. He is too good of a kid and player for that.
• You can X-and-O all you want to, but basketball is still about confidence. How it comes and goes remains a mystery no coach or player can solve.
• Tennessee is more athletic and longer than last year, but the Volunteers are not as good defensively. Remember, UT is a relatively new team, with completely new guards. For Tennessee to be the best team in the SEC, the Vols will have to learn to stay in front, make teams shoot over them, and stop gambling and giving opponents so many easy and open shots. They put up more than enough points to win, and are winning games and are in a position to win games against really good teams because they play hard and rebound. As soon as Tennessee figures out the defense, the Vols will be really good.
• I still believe that Arizona State's James Harden is the best all-around player in the country. That's why I put him as one of my five preseason first team All-Americans. The same goes for UCLA's Darren Collison. If I had to choose one point guard, it would be him. He is a winner and a terrific all-around point guard.
• Florida guard Nick Calathes is quietly playing his tail off. Calathes had 32 points against NC State and is averaging 17 points, four-plus rebounds and just under seven assists per game.
• Clemson has a chance to be special this year -- the best Tigers team since Dale Davis and Elden Campbell won the ACC regular season in 1990. I like the way Clemson is playing.
• Dayton is 14-1 and one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Brian Gregory plays 12 guys in a platoon system, and the Flyers are athletic and energetic on defense. Dayton is holding teams to 35 percent shooting and just 55 points per game. There's not much offense, but the Flyers are very quick, with a blue-collar toughness to them. Chris Wright is the leading scorer and rebounder and is finally healthy after missing 19 games last season. The Flyers may not be quite as good as Xavier, but they can play with anyone in the Atlantic 10 and have already beaten Marquette, Auburn, George Mason and Miami (Ohio).