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Badgers' Bet Begins With a Penney Ante
The Washington Post; Washington, D.C.; Mar 20, 2003; Greg Lee;

Kirk Penney started his college basketball career at Wisconsin with a trip to the NCAA Final Four.

Four years later, that's where he would like it to end.

"That was a dream run," Penney said recalling the 1999-2000 season when he was a freshman. "It would be a great feeling to go out the same way."

In between, Penney, a New Zealand native, became a world traveler of sorts. His passport was stamped at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney; he's making his fourth trip to the NCAA tournament; and he averaged 16.9 points in the World Championships in Indianapolis last summer where his New Zealand team finished a surprising fourth.

This season, Penney has been checking off the final games of his collegiate career as a reminder that the end is near. The two-time all-Big Ten first team selection and his fifth-seeded Badgers (22- 7) open the tournament here on Thursday against 12th-seeded Weber State (26-5), the runaway Big Sky Conference champion.

It was against Weber State last season, in the Badgers' third game under first-year coach Bo Ryan, that the 6-foot-5 Penney had his worst game. He finished with a season-low three points in the 73- 69 loss at the Big Island Invitational in Hilo, Hawaii, missing nine of 10 field goal attempts and all four three-point shots.

"It seems like a lifetime ago," said Penney, who scored in single digits in five of Wisconsin's first nine games as the Badgers started 3-6.

Penney ultimately adjusted to his third coach eight games later, breaking out for a career-high 33 points in an 86-73 win over Marquette. He made 13 of 17 shots from the field, 3 of 5 three- pointers.

Penney has grown into a versatile player -- especially under Ryan. The 6-foot-5 guard can make the three-pointer consistently and create opportunities inside or off the dribble. He has bulked up from 188 pounds when he arrived in Madison, Wis., to 235 and is an NBA prospect.

"In this day and age, to play against the best teams, you have to have a countermove or something to keep people honest," Ryan told the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. "He does a great job catching and shooting. . . . It's just the natural evolution of a player going from 18 years old to 22."

Steadfastly lodged in the Wisconsin record book, Penney is considered one of the trailblazers in the Badgers' rise to national prominence. He's the lone senior on a team making its fifth straight NCAA appearance. Whether his teammates understand the urgency of his desire to return to the Final Four isn't clear.

"It's a situation where your career is coming to an end and you want to pass that urgency on to the young guys," Penney said. "I think they understand how much it means to you."

So the usually placid Kiwi has become more vocal lately.

"We've worked hard to be where we are and they [his teammates] understand that we need to work hard to keep playing," Penney said. "I think this game will be a good measuring stick of how much we've developed in the last two years because we're playing a very tough team."

Penney's biggest improvement has come as a passer. He has 88 assists, one more than he had the last two years combined, and NBA teams are aware of his talents. According to pro scouts, he's projected as high as a late first-round pick.

But for Penney, all of his accolades take a back seat to taking care of business Thursday, as he would be part of more victories than any Badgers player.

"You make your own destiny; seeding doesn't matter now," Penney said. "Being able to play in the Olympics and World Championships, those are things you'll always remember. But right now the focus for myself and the team is this tournament.

"We're not taking anything for granted having lost to them last year. We know they can play."