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UW men's basketball: Badgers follow Captain Kirk

There are times when Kirk Penney will sit alone with his thoughts inside the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team's locker room and not have the slightest clue that he has the full attention of his younger teammates.

As Penney closes his eyes and maybe rubs his goatee, his teammates will be watching him, looking for clues about what might be running through his mind.

"You wonder what he's thinking about when he's off in his own world," said sophomore guard Clayton Hanson, who smiled, shook his head and then added with pure admiration in his voice, "He sure is an interesting guy."

It could be said that Penney is the Badgers' leader by default because he's the team's lone senior. But there's no question the 6-foot-5 guard from Auckland, New Zealand, has earned the title as well as the captaincy.

If he's not leading the Badgers as one of the best players in the Big Ten Conference, he leads as an exemplary student. When he's not traveling the globe playing in the Olympics or training for the World Basketball Championships as a member of New Zealand's national team, he's making every one of his Wisconsin teammates feel welcome into his life despite his lofty status.

Opponents respect and like him, his fellow students adore him, his teammates love him and will run through a wall with him or for him.

At the ripe old age of 22, Penney is already worldly and carries with him an air of invincibility. He's the Badgers' Captain Kirk.

"He sure has that aura about him," said Hanson.

Penney's teammates should know what he's thinking about these days. It's an all-consuming thing in his mind.

He can see the end of his collegiate career and he wants to find a way to lead his teammates down a never-ending road. It's one reason why the usually quiet Kiwi has become more vocal in recent weeks.

"It's a situation where you're making your own destiny about how long you want to play. And you want to play so badly," Penney said. "It's very consuming because you want to just keep playing and you want the guys to relate with you."

Penney made a pregame and halftime speech during the Badgers' trip to Evanston, Ill., Saturday, when the UW beat Northwestern 74-59 in Big Ten play. It won't be a surprise if he speaks up again tonight when the Badgers (16-5, 6-3 Big Ten) face Michigan State (13-8, 5-4) in a nationally televised conference game at the sold out Kohl Center (6 o'clock tipoff/ESPN).

He'll most likely mention that the Badgers must match the fire the Spartans will bring to the court. It's something inherent in a team coached by Tom Izzo, who Penney greatly admires.

"I watched Tom Izzo Saturday night and it was great how he was getting after his players," said Penney, referring to Izzo's coaching during the Spartans' 67-62 overtime victory at Indiana. "He understands what this time means for his team.

"I watched him and I thought, 'Yeah, he has that fire.' We have to have that fire, too," Penney added. "We're past the halfway point of the Big Ten, every single play in every game is huge right now."

That's why Penney won't hesitate to jump on a teammate if he doesn't come to practice or a game with the focus needed to win. But, in true Penney form, he does it with style.

"If something doesn't happen that should happen, he'll get on you and kick your butt until the game is over," said sophomore forward Mike Wilkinson. "But once the game is over, he'll tell you that you're a good player and he builds your confidence back up. And then he'll tell you what happened and explain what you have to do and encourage you to do it right the next time."

Penney still does his best leading by example. He's tops on the team in scoring (16.3 ppg) and assists (3.3 apg), and is second in rebounding (6.3 rpg). He's also the only player in the Big Ten to rank in the top 10 in scoring (fifth), rebounding (eighth) and assists (10th).

But that doesn't tell the entire story.

"In order for us to get it done and win, we have to do it as a team. He's willing to sacrifice his individual glory to make the extra pass to a teammate for a wide-open shot. That's what makes him good," said Wilkinson.

"He could try to do it all by himself but he doesn't," Wilkinson added. "He makes other people do it, too, and he has confidence in them that they can get it done."

UW coach Bo Ryan mentioned Penney's improved defense as another example of how he's working hard to make the team better. "He has just improved as a player, period," Ryan said. "That certainly says a lot to your players when they can see a guy like that who has improved because that has to be incentive for them, too."

Ask assistant coach Tony Bennett, who discovered Penney when he was coaching in New Zealand and has kept a close relationship with him, and he is equally as complimentary.

But Bennett, as well as Penney, knows it doesn't matter what Penney has done as a leader so far - it's what he will do in the next few weeks. "This is crunch time. You have to rely on the guys who have been there and experienced this stuff before because, usually, it steps up a notch," said Bennett.

Ask Penney and he'll agree with Bennett and give himself a grade of incomplete. "I don't think we've done anything yet," he said. "There's nothing to look back on yet because there's so much more we have to achieve."

It's very apparent that Penney aches when he thinks of his career ending at Wisconsin. It's an ache that might be stronger than for some past seniors because of the miles he has traveled to get to the school that "I've come to love and enjoy," and how far he might end up from it again after he graduates.

So he gets extremely excited when he saw 6-foot-5 freshman forward Alando Tucker grab six offensive rebounds against Northwestern. "That shows hustle and hard work, which is so important all the time, but especially at this time of year when it's just a matter of getting things done," he said. "There are no excuses. There is nothing to fall back on."

And Captain Kirk gets excited about what he can do as the leader of the Starship Badger. He just hopes he his getting his point across to everyone.

"We're in the conference stretch where you have to work for every single thing you get," Penney said. "It's a matter of understanding the situation you're in and going out and grabbing it without letting it pass by. That's something you want the younger players to understand."

Wilkinson said the Badgers are more than eager to follow him.

"He comes out on fire every day in practice making us want it more," said Wilkinson. "It's really just follow-the-leader now and he's the leader. It's fun to watch. It's fun to be a part of. If we stay with his intensity, we'll be fine."

And they are more than willing to listen to him. Penney has no idea that his teammates can't wait to find out what's on the mind of their friend, role model and leader.

"If there's someone who's always talking, it goes in one ear and out the other," said Hanson. "But when he speaks, it's always pretty meaningful."

Published: 9:33 AM 2/11/03