Wisconsin has dropped three straight and four of its last five to close the regular season heading into its date with Arizona to open the NCAA Tournament on Friday. But to turn the season around, star forward Alando Tucker needed to look no further than the state of Pennsylvania to which the team traveled to Wednesday.
"We were talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers had a tough time before they went to the Super Bowl and took it all," Tucker said. "I was talking to the guys about that. When things start to get negative you have to start thinking positive and go back to the beginning."
In going back to the beginning, the Badgers hope to rekindle some of that early spark that catapulted them to a 14-2 start before losing nine of their final 14 games. The team has been at a crossroads before, back in February when Indiana and Ohio State were on their way into the Kohl Center and Wisconsin's season hung in the balance. The team took care of business and all but assured another trip to the tournament.
Only this time around, one loss definitely means the end. But instead of tightening up and worrying about their recent woes, the Badgers are doing just the opposite.
"We've been through a tough time and we know it can't get any tougher," Tucker said. "We went through a lot this season. So now our mindset is it can't get any tougher than what we faced. So now everybody has to stay relaxed, loose."
In fact, players are all smiles in their pre-tournament preparations. Marcus Landry whispers something to a teammate while running up the stairs early this week and assistant Howard Moore yells at him from a section over. "Oh no, he heard me," Landry exclaims, grinning and continuing on his way.
Afterwards, team members with varying experience levels talk about their excitement for the tournament. They know the shots they want have been there and are of the belief they can begin to knock them down.
"In practice we're hitting shots left and right," said Brian Butch a few minutes after nailing some long-range jumpers in a shooting drill. "In practice we have rhythm. We just need to carry that rhythm into games."
Tucker also sees an energy and an urgency about the team in practice. He said the emotion is building out on the court and simply needs to transfer onto the floor this weekend as well.
To put things in perspective, Tucker has reminded his teammates in the face of their recent frustrations that this game is still fun, and that March is the most fun of all. He thinks back to growing up and watching the tournament as a kid. These days he gets to live that excitement in addition to viewing it.
"When you get a chance to play, you put so much pressure on yourself that you lose that sight," Tucker said, "and I think that's one thing that I'm trying to get throughout my teammates' heads — that we can't lose sight of this is still fun.
"Of late we've been putting too much pressure on ourselves as a team, and I think that's why we haven't been making as many shots as we have (before). When we're out there relaxed and having fun, we're a better team."
So, he said the coaching staff is not applying too much pressure on players, because they understand the situation. At this point the team is not going to change, they simply will or will not execute. Focusing on what they need to do while still savoring the moment will hopefully lead to the success they crave.
For some of the younger guys it is their first time learning to navigate the madness. Freshman Joe Krabbenhoft can barely contain his excitement. He sighs and shakes his head like a teenager in love. He is both this week — still 18-years-old (for the first two rounds) and head over heels for the tournament.
"All day long that's all I think about," Krabbenhoft said. "It's nice because it's spring break. When school is going on we would have to designate those hours to school. So I'm glad there's no school."
Maybe that's what all the Badgers are so giddy about at practice — a week without homework. Either way they seem to have found the means to remove the pressure from themselves for the time being and just play basketball. Either the ball falls through the net or it doesn't. But they will give it their all.
"Now this is our last opportunity, so we have to realize it," Tucker said. "Everybody has to look in the mirror and realize that we have to put it together. We don't have a second chance."
They might as well have a little fun in the process.