NEW YORK — Mike McCarthy stepped inside plenty of somber locker rooms during his 12th season as coach of the Green Bay Packers. On Feb. 11, he entered one at the Kohl Center to address players who weren’t even under his watch.
The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team had just dropped its third consecutive home game, this one an 83-72 decision to Michigan that came in front of dozens of former players in town for Alumni Day. The Badgers trailed by 22 points at halftime after digging themselves a 15-2 hole to start the game.
Afterward, McCarthy spoke to the team at the request of UW coach Greg Gard. McCarthy highlighted two themes in his speech, both of which were timely and, according to multiple members of the program, struck a chord for a struggling team that had just lost for the ninth time in 11 games.
Four days later, UW shocked No. 6 Purdue to kickstart a late-season surge. The Badgers (14-17) open Big Ten Conference tournament play today with a game against Maryland (19-12) at Madison Square Garden.
In some regard, what McCarthy said that day wasn’t all that different from ground Gard had covered multiple times over the previous three months. But this time, the words were coming from an outsider, a Super Bowl champion who was just over a month removed from a 7-9 season that ended a run of eight consecutive playoff appearances for the Packers.
“The message was good to hear from another voice,” UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “Sometimes, it’s good to hear it from an outside source who you know and trust is a great coach and a winner with one of the best organizations in the world.”
The first main topic McCarthy stressed was how there’s a big difference between defeat and failure.
“Being defeated is one thing, that’s when you lay it all on the line, you prepare, you know you did your due diligence and you were ready for it and they just beat you,” Krabbenhoft said. “But he said failure is when you don’t come ready, you don’t prepare the way you should, you don’t take care of all the little things. You have to refuse to fail. I thought that message really hit home with our guys.”
The loss to Michigan was UW’s 16th of the season, clinching a sub-.500 regular-season campaign. Of those losses, Krabbenhoft believes there were examples of “defeat” and plenty of others that could have been categorized as “failures.”
There were plenty of issues that contributed to UW’s struggles, but two in particular were hard to stomach because they were among the pillars of UW’s success over the years: defense and taking care of the ball.
The Badgers’ defense showed major signs of improvement over the final two weeks of the regular season, a stretch that began with the upset of Purdue and continued with wins over Minnesota and Northwestern before a close loss to No. 2 Michigan State.
UW also has done a better job of making the most of its offensive possessions. The Badgers committed 8.9 turnovers per game in the month of February, down from an average of 11.7 over the first 23 games of the season.
“This team has bought into the little things since then,” Krabbenhoft said, referring to the loss to Michigan.
McCarthy’s second theme took more of a bigger-picture view and drew parallels between the Packers and the Badgers.
Essentially, according to UW senior forward Aaron Moesch, it boiled down to this:
“When winning comes easy,” Moesch said of McCarthy’s message, “that’s a problem in that you get away from the building blocks that built your program.”
A critical blow for the Packers in 2017 was losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone, but McCarthy admitted he thought his team got away from some of the little things that had made the team a consistent winner.
“He made a great point that we lost a couple guys,” Moesch said, referring to injured rotation players D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King, “and we can’t get away from what we are that’s made us great in the past. Because, over the last four years, winning came so easy because we had talent that could cover up maybe taking shortcuts. I think the parallel that he drew between their season and our season was awesome.”
One challenge Gard has faced is getting every player on his team to practice hard day after day. He mixed things up Tuesday, using two of the hardest-working players in program history on the scout team. Krabbenhoft and Alando Tucker set the tone with their energy, physical play and chatter.
Moesch called it the best practice of the season, and Gard agreed.
“It was just a bloodbath,” said Moesch, who was sporting a cut under his right eye that was the result of a scramble for a loose ball involving Krabbenhoft. “I told coach Krab, ‘We’re playing football out there sometimes, but that’s OK.’ Sometimes you need one of those.”
The next step for the Badgers: making sure that intensity comes along with them to New York.
“We’re packing for four days,” Moesch said, “because we’re going to bring that energy into the games and we plan on staying there four days.”