How do you measure heart? How do you quantify hustle? How do you take the intangible qualities the best basketball teams seem to possess, and turn them into a number that can be recorded, ranked and published?
At Kansas State, the answer is simple. One point for a deflection, block or steal. One point for a loose ball collected, a dive on the floor or an offensive rebound. Two points for taking a charge. These numbers are obsessively tracked by team managers during games and practice. During competition, they also track the opponent’s scores. Add up each player’s totals, and you have their play-hard score. Combined, the players’ totals provide the team’s play-hard point total.
A board that hangs prominently in the Wildcats’ locker room tracks these totals throughout a season and highlights the most recent games’ play-hard point leader.
It’s known as the Wayne McClain Play Hard chart, named after a late, tough-as-nails assistant coach, and it’s the beating heart of an impressive 22-7 team that ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense. Head coach Bruce Weber helped invent it nearly 40 years ago, inspired by hearing Hubie Brown speak about how his staff logged deflection totals.
It’s become something Weber emphasizes on a daily basis, whether it’s in team meetings or press conferences.
When Kansas State beat Kansas earlier this season, Weber was quick to point out the Wildcats nearly doubled up the Jayhawks in play-hard points. After they knocked Kentucky out of the tournament last season, he mentioned that while his team couldn’t out-jump UK, they could out-dive them for loose balls. When one of his players has double-digit points, rebounds and play-hard points in a game, Weber may, without irony, tell reporters they had a triple-double. He’s even caught some flack for his steadfast dedication to the chart at times, but the results and the buy-in from players cannot be disputed.
“For somebody to be beating us on the Play Hard is a smack in the face,” Barry Brown Jr., the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season, recently told CJ Moore of The Athletic. Moore detailed the history of the Play Hard chart in a recent feature.
Photo via The Athletic
In 1981, a young Weber got an assistant gig at Purdue under Gene Keady. Keady, now a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, lionized toughness and hustle. Purdue would need those traits in spades to keep up with arch-rival Indiana, who had won a national championship in 1981 and were annihilating the Boilermakers in recruiting.
“We had to find some way (to compete with Indiana),” Weber told The Athletic. “We couldn’t get the best players. Indiana and Coach (Bob) Knight got all the best players. We got whoever he didn’t want, and sometimes—and I’m not joking—there were 15 scholarships and he would take guys we really wanted but he just didn’t want us to get them. And they had that opportunity to do it. They were winning national championships. He was the Olympic coach. So we just had to find a way to compete with them.”
Weber had learned of Brown’s penchant for tracking deflections a couple years earlier, which served as the inspiration for he and the Purdue staff to create the original Play Hard chart. It helped Purdue rise to national prominence, and Weber’s been a believer ever since.
At Southern Illinois, it helped him guide the Salukis to a 103-54 record during his tenure, including a magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2002. At Illinois, it helped produce six NCAA tournament appearances—including one national runner-up finish—in nine seasons. And now at Kansas State, it runs through the veins of one college basketball’s most competitive teams.
The Play Hard chart has helped a program largely devoid of high-profile recruits punch above their weight. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Wildcats ranked 71st, 92nd and 100th, respectively, in 247Sports team recruiting rankings. Yet they’re poised to make the NCAA tournament in three consecutive seasons, and last year, fought all the way to the Elite Eight.
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