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Toughness Wins!

“Players play, but tough players win.”

-Tom Izzo, Michigan State

The following are attributes of toughness by Jay Bilas in his ESPN article, Defining Toughness In College Hoops. We have slightly modified many of them to fit our system and vocabulary. Bilas prefaced his blog with this definition: “Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved.”


Tough Players...


1. Set good, hard screens. You are improving the chances for a teammate to get open, and you are greatly improving your chances of getting open.

2. Make hard cuts, and set up their man. Basketball is about deception. Take your defender one way, and then cut hard.

3. Talk on defense early, loud and often. You let your teammates know where you are and what is happening. Tough teams talk!

4. Jump to the ball. The toughest players move at the air speed of the ball (not when it gets to its destination). You don't allow face cuts.

5. Do not get screened. Tough players fight through screens so that the cutter cannot catch the ball where he wants to. You also make the catch difficult.

6. Maintain high, active hands. You play with your hands up to take away vision, get deflections and to discourage a pass in order to allow a teammate to cover up.

7. Play the ball and see their man. There is a difference. Most defenders see the ball and hug their man, because they are afraid to get beat.

8. Get on the floor. You don’t just bend over at the waist. The toughest players are all about floor burns!

9. Close out under control, take away direct drives and disrupt the shot. You have a sense of urgency, but the discipline to do it the right way.

10. Sprint the floor, which drags the defense and opens up things for others. You run hard and get “easy” baskets, even though there is nothing easy about them.

11. Are always posting their defensive man. A tough post player is always open, and working to get the ball to the proper angle to get a post feed. And you continue to post strong even if your teammates miss you.

12. Play so hard that their coaches have to take them out to get rest so they can put them back in. You don't pace yourself.

13. Get to their teammates first. When your teammate lays his body on the line to take a charge or dive on the floor, you are there to pick him up. If he misses a freethrow or makes a mistake, tough players encourage him right away.

14. Take responsibility for others in addition to themselves. They expect a lot from their teammates, but they also put them first. You also give credit to your teammates before taking it yourself.

15. Take a charge. You are in a stance, playing the ball and alert. The toughest players know that they have to get to the right spot with the sense of urgency to stop someone.

16. Are down in a stance on both ends of the floor, with feet staggered and ready to move. You are the aggressor – and the lower butt wins!

17. Don't just get fouled, they get fouled and complete the play. You don't give up on a play or assume that a teammate will do it. The toughest players play through to the end of the play and work to finish every play.

18. Don’t have their passes deflected. You get down, pivot, pass-fake, and work to get the proper angle to pass away from the defense and deliver the ball with sureness.

19. Fill their tanks on the defensive end, not on offense. You are not deterred by a missed shot. The toughest players value their performance first by how well they defend.

20. Can take hard instruction without feeling the need to answer back or give excuses. You are open to getting better and expect to be challenged and hear tough things.

21. Project strength and confidence with their body language. You do not whine, complain or make excuses. Tough players “wear the face” their teammates need to see.

22. Catch, face the rim, and make the right read and play; and they do it with poise. You don’t just catch and dribble; you catch and face.

23. Trap hard. You get shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee and toe-to-toe with your teammate and don’t allow the handler to split the trap.

24. Are not “cool”. Tough players are alert and active; and tough players communicate with teammates so that they are alert, too. You echo commands until everyone is on the same page. Tough teams talk!

25. Work hard to concentrate on every play. You go as hard as you can for as long as you can with perfect focus.

26. Don't take bad shots, and you certainly don't worry about getting “my” shots. The toughest players work for good shots and understand that it is not “my” shot, it is “our” shot. You celebrate when the team scores.

27. Are disciplined enough to block out. You first make a hit and then pursue the ball. The toughest players do this every possession, not just when they feel like it.

28. Make no excuses. You take responsibility for your actions and never pass the buck. That's toughness!

29. Never hang their heads. You always look at your coaches and teammates in the eye, because if they are talking, it is important to them and to you.

30. Don't waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. Tough players move on to the next play. You know that the most important play in any game is the “next play”.

31. Are hard to play against, and easy to play with: Tough players make their teammates' jobs easier, and their opponents' jobs tougher.

32. Don't categorize opponents and games. They know that if they are playing, it is important. You understand that if you want to play in championship games, you must treat every game as a championship game.

33. Don’t let their teammates down. They are reliable; and a big part of being reliable is being punctual and self-disciplined. They don’t get beat by their alarm clock! They are self-starters and their effort never has to be coached.

34. Come to work every day to get better. They meet victory and defeat the same way: You get up the next day and go to work to be better than you were the day before. The toughest players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss. You enjoy winning but are never satisfied. The goal is to get better every day.


Most players believe that accountability means blame. It doesn’t. Accountability is being held to the standard you have accepted as what you want, individually and collectively. Trustworthy coaches and teammates can help you be at your best by challenging you to do your best, even when you think you can’t. For tough players and teams, accountability is an obligation coaches and teammates have to each other.

-By Jay Bilas

Click here to read the book, Toughness, by Jay Bilas

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