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Posted on Sat, Mar. 22, 2003

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Brains of the Badgers
With a cerebral approach to the game, Kirk Penney is
Wisconsin's driving force.

Pioneer Press

 

SPOKANE, Wash. Maybe it's his artist's mind, Tony Bennett says. Maybe that's why Kirk Penney has come this far, has so visibly and smoothly assimilated the basketball lessons he has learned during the seven years Bennett has known him.

By now, Bennett can almost see inside Penney's mind: A problem exists. It takes a shape behind Penney's eyes, assuming a texture. Then the sketch artist in him goes to work, discerning limits to circumvent. And then, efficiently, succinctly, he does just that. And then the problem is solved.

"You give him something, and he thinks about it, and he kind of goes over it and then he masters it. And he moves on," said Bennett, the Wisconsin assistant coach who, while serving as a player-coach in New Zealand, unearthed Penney at age 15. "He picks up stuff so fast."

It fairly explains why Penney has gone from a skinny 18-year-old role player on a Final Four team in a foreign land to this, the senior bedrock for the Badgers men's basketball team that meets Tulsa today at Spokane Arena. A trip to the Midwest Regional at the Metrodome next week is at stake.

Penney is Wisconsin's leading scorer, at 16.4 points a game, but that alone doesn't appraise his value. The big moments fit him like a tailored suit. His ability to find the big shot is uncanny, and that comes from a mind that confronts and solves obstacles with precision.

"Whenever you make a mistake, he makes you pay for it," Tulsa coach John Phillips said Friday. "He really understands the game, and it's fun to watch guys like that."

Maybe that's the most apt description of Penney on the floor: cerebral. There is no wasted motion, no confusion.

Penney attributes much of that to his wealth of experience he played on a Final Four team and two Big Ten Conference champions, but he has also suited up for New Zealand for the Goodwill Games, the World Championships and the Olympics.

"I think experience helps, wherever it is," Penney said. "I'd like to think that broadened my IQ of the game. It definitely benefited me, both from a basketball IQ and confidence standpoint, to play against those guys."

Bennett, a close friend of Penney's, tells it to people all the time: That is one charmed college life.

"People dream about that kind of college career," Bennett said. "With all those experiences comes confidence. He's been through so much. He's had three different head coaches, and he's taken so much from all of them."

It's coming to a close within the next month, so there is just the present for Penney to consider, as well as the burden it presents.

Wisconsin might have four double-figures scorers on its roster, but as it was Thursday against Weber State, it will in each NCAA tournament game be Penney's team at some point. His three-pointer ignited a late first-half run to blow open the game, and another snapped the Badgers out of a funk and halted the Wildcats' second-half run.

As Badgers coach Bo Ryan said, Penney is one of two or three Badgers capable of taking that last shot. Some of Penney's teammates might amend that a bit.

"He has to lead us," Badgers guard Devin Harris said. "He's the guy that, any time, he can break loose."

Penney didn't get weepy when reflecting on his career, but he realizes how far he has come. Three years ago, he was in a locker room with a Final Four team tougher than a rusted nail. But he was somewhat outside all that, still adjusting to the American college game.

"There are so many 18-year-old kids out there who can come in and play right away," Penney said. "For others like myself, you've just got to learn the ropes and develop as quickly as possible."

That is where Kirk Penney excels, when pictures of problems take shape in his mind. There is a picture forming right now, actually. And if he gets around this one, if he finds a way once again, the charmed life lives another week.


Brian Hamilton can be reached at bchamilton@pioneerpress.com.