When I think of the toughest players in basketball, I think of the players who are relentless, compete with high-level consistency on every play in games and in practice and are difficult to play against and easy to play with. They aren't always the biggest or the strongest, nor are they the loudest. They let their games do the talking, and win or lose -- it's usually win -- you walk off the floor with nothing but respect for those players because of their toughness.
I knew the toughest players when I was playing, and there's no substitute for playing against someone to truly understand how tough they really are. But I can't remember back that far, so I am going to give you a list of 10 of the toughest players I have seen in college basketball in the 20 years I have been broadcasting. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Of course, I may leave out players who have shown great toughness on the floor and off, who were great teammates and amazing competitors. These are just a few who have stood out to me in my years behind the microphone.
1. Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State Spartans
Cleaves was really tough. His smile and happy-go-lucky approach masked an incredible toughness. Cleaves was a worker, but he was a tough leader. He was tough enough to communicate and to challenge his teammates, and wasn't afraid of confrontation. Cleaves didn't just want to win, he brought everyone else with him, and got them into the fight as well.
2. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina Tar Heels
Hansbrough was incredibly tough. He was willing to do what it took to win, and do it every day. Roy Williams once said that he never came out for practice at North Carolina when Hansbrough wasn't already there. He played his tail off in every game and every practice. He raised everyone's level, including that of his opponents, who needed to play harder than usual just to compete with Hansbrough. Every time you watched him play, his toughness impressed you. It was never a given.
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky Wildcats
There's that word again: relentless. Kidd-Gilchrist was not the most skilled offensive player, but he was one of the toughest players. He didn't just play hard, he played his hardest and did it all the time. Kidd-Gilchrist was a tremendous competitor and winner, but his toughness was the foundation for that.
4. P.J. Tucker, Texas Longhorns
Tucker was a pleasure to watch. He was versatile and he never seemed to change expression on the floor. He met challenges and found a way. I don't ever remember anyone getting the best of Tucker, or ever seeing him back down or back off. I'm not sure Rick Barnes has had a tougher player than Tucker. If he has, it has been a profound secret to me.
5. Juan Dixon, Maryland Terrapins
I'll never forget when I first saw Dixon. He was a little, skinny kid, redshirting, shooting by himself. I asked Gary Williams who he was. "That kid?" Gary said. "That's Johnny Dawkins."
I was incredulous, as Dawkins was one of the great players of all time in college basketball. But as I found out later, Dixon was very much like Dawkins. He was tough and nothing fazed him. He was a worker on both ends of the floor, and he never backed down from a challenge. It is no accident that Maryland went to two straight Final Fours and won a national championship with Dixon as the Terps' best player.
6. Dwyane Wade, Marquette Golden Eagles
Wade was obviously a tremendous talent, but he wasn't thought to be a lottery lock when he first arrived at Marquette. Instead, he worked his way into stardom and his toughness and talent combined to make him a truly great player. He attacked at every opportunity on both ends, though the difference was that he was totally prepared through his work. Wade didn't just do it with talent. He developed that talent, and his work and preparation made him even tougher.
7. Kenneth Faried, Morehead State Eagles
Faried was clearly talented. You don't lead the nation in rebounding for multiple seasons without having terrific talent. But what made Faried special was his toughness. He was relentless in his pursuit of the ball, and he was intimidating even though he never said a word or ever went after an opponent. He just went after the ball, again and again and again. He didn't just run the floor, he sprinted it, and he simply wore out opponents.
8. Draymond Green, Michigan State Spartans
Green was a tremendously tough player who thought beyond himself. His toughness made those around him tougher, and others joined in -- it was contagious. He fought you on the glass, he got on the floor, and he fought his teammates and coaches. But after challenging those people, he was tough enough to unite everyone and move on together. Green was a winner.
9. Kirk Hinrich, Kansas Jayhawks
Hinrich was a tremendous competitor who could run all day. He went after people and did it on both ends of the floor. An All-American, Hinrich played with a blue-collar toughness and never gave up in any situation. It was a pleasure to watch him play and to watch him fight.
10. Ronald Nored, Butler Bulldogs
Nored was the best on-ball defender in the country in his last couple of seasons at Butler, and he never took a play off. He was not a shooter or a scorer, but an effective player because he was always focused, alert and engaged. He made it difficult for the opposing point guard to do much of anything, and pushed the opposing offense further out on the floor. It wasn't the steals or deflections, but the relentless pressure that never ceased. Nored was not just a player, but a leader.