Tom Crean had plenty to say about his top-ranked Indiana basketball team.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – Karl Rove has advised governors, U.S. Senators and President George W. Bush. Thursday afternoon Rove led a fast-break into Assembly Hall to advise the Indiana University basketball team.
"I heard you guys have been voted Number One," Rove said.
Gathered in a semi-circle on the edge of the court, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Tom Crean's IU players nodded their heads.
"Congratulations," Rove said.
Cody Zeller, Remy Abell and even the four freshmen smiled at the recognition.
"Now, forget about it," Rove said. "One of the first things I learned in politics is when everybody starts telling you you're Number One, that's when you get your butt kicked."
Crean, associate head coach Tim Buckley and the staff smiled at that one. For the next five minutes, this was not strictly a red program. This was a bi-partisan practice. Another first-string political advisor stepped forward to speak – Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary who is a senior campaign adviser for President Obama.
Gibbs also had a message that had nothing to do with Nov. 6. Before Gibbs guided the President with the press corps, he protected the goal for the North Carolina State soccer team.
"Looking back, I don't think I appreciated the experience and process as much as I should have," Gibbs said. "If I could tell you anything, I'd say you've got a chance to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself and your own individual goals.
"Focus on the team part of this as much as you can. If you do that, you've got a great chance to hang a banner in a place as historic as this building."
Crean and his staff loved that message, too. John Wooden or Phil Jackson couldn't have said it better. Crean directed his players to introduce themselves and shake hands with Rove and Gibbs, before the two politicos made their way to campus for a joint appearance Thursday night. Rove teased Hulls about never seeing him miss a shot. Gibbs asked Zeller about the joy of being seven feet. Practice resumed with greater urgency. Crean told his guys to remember the message.
"Here's two people that are at the highest of levels in their chosen profession, being in the political field and now with the ability to be on TV and do the things that they do," Crean said. "And really the message is the same.
"It doesn't matter about your walk of life. It's all about the same thing. You've got to be humble, you've got to be hungry, you've got to move forward, you've got to be a great teammate, you can't rest on anything you've done or what you think you're going to do."
Somebody joked that four years ago, during the last presidential election, Gibbs and Rove would have bypassed Assembly Hall and gone directly to Kirkwood Avenue, Nick's or the IU Auditorium. There wasn't much to see. In 2008, Crean took over a sagging and penalized program that lacked any returning scholarship players and lost 25 of 31 games.
The Hoosiers failed to earn a single vote in four consecutive pre-season polls from the coaches who pick the Top 25 for USA Today. Don't forget that Basketball Times picked Indiana to finish 11th in the Big Ten only last season. Crean and his players haven't.
This year the same publication picks the Hoosiers first in the nation. Ditto for the coaches' poll, which was released earlier Wednesday. Speculation is that more recognition is coming. A photographer was here from ESPN The Magazine this week; another arrives from Sports Illustrated next week.
In a world of shortcuts, hocus pocus and magic recruiting dust, Crean rebuilt this program player-by-player, class-by-class and season-by-season. How difficult were things four years ago?
Indiana will feature dunk and three-point shooting contests at its public Hoosier Hysteria practice in Assembly Hall Saturday night. All 17,742 seats are expected to be filled. When Crean staged his first Hoosier Hysteria in 2008, he was ecstatic that most of the lower bowl was full. "Instead of dunk and three-point shooting contests, we had a layup line and a 17-foot shooting contest," Buckley said.
Patience was required during the most impatient time in American sports culture. Twitter and message boards weren't built on waiting on a four-year plan.
The players can joke about it now because IU won 27 of 36 games last season, including three against Top 5 opponents. They pushed into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Kentucky, the eventual champs, 102-90.
All five starters return, topped by Zeller. It wasn't Karl Rove- or Robert Gibbs-spin when Crean said spots in the March 2012 starting lineup do not come with promises for Nov., 9 2012, when IU opens the season against Bryant University or Nov. 27 when North Carolina and ESPN's national television cameras visit.
Crean has seniors such as Watford and Hulls who came to IU when it would have been easier to go elsewhere. He has juniors like Oladipo and Will Sheehey who gave this program grit. He has one sophomore (Zeller) considered a frontrunner for national player of the year and another (Abell, from Louisville Eastern High School) considered the team's most improved player.
And he has a four-member freshmen class considered one of the best in the nation.
Minutes must be earned, game-by-game, practice-by-practice, minute-by-minute. The points you scored against Kentucky or Purdue have been forgotten.
"That makes no difference," Crean said. "That's nice to think about. If one of those guys that started last year is not the best starter for us or is not the finisher for us, I'd sit ‘em down in a second and not bat an eyelash. Because you're cheating the team if you don't do that. And you're cheating them ultimately.
"Our guys have got to understand, there's no room for excuses. It's got to constantly be about getting better. It's not about a starting lineup. It's about getting a group of guys that can play."
Karl Rove or Robert Gibbs couldn't have argued it any better.