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Penney has developed into Wisconsin's do-all player

Michael Rand, Star Tribune


Published March 27, 2003


Three seasons ago, a coach watched film of Wisconsin and came to this conclusion about Kirk Penney, then a Badgers freshman.

"We had certain rules for the guys guarding him," the coach said. "He was pretty much one-dimensional."

The coach, Bo Ryan, was in his first season at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Penney was a defense-stretching shooter -- and little more -- for a Badgers squad that made a surprising run to the Final Four.

Little did either know that two years later they would be paired together in Wisconsin, each critical to the other's success. For Ryan, who took over the Badgers last season, getting the most out of Penney at both ends of the floor was necessary for Wisconsin to contend. For Penney, learning Ryan's "swing" offense began a metamorphosis from three-point specialist to all-Big Ten performer and unquestioned senior leader of a team poised to take on No. 1 Kentucky in the Sweet 16 today at the Metrodome.

To appreciate the transformation of Penney's game, one needs only to listen to a fresh scouting report offered by a different coach.

"He's a very poised and seasoned player," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "He's tough at both ends of the court. He can take a bump and he can give a bump. He makes the other people around him better."

The transformation is a testament to both coach and player. Ryan's system requires versatile players. Post players need to pop out and knock down jumpers, while guards need to be able to post up. Everybody on the court must play good team defense.

"The system offers the opportunity to go inside and outside," Penney said. "It poses different looks to defenses. It's given me the opportunity to become a more complete player."

A look at Penney's numbers show how the 6-5 guard's game has changed. While his three-point shooting percentage has dipped slightly (from 43.2 as a sophomore to 37.0 this season), his rebounding, assist and steal totals have gone up in the same span. Ryan gives the credit to Penney.

"He did it. We showed him some things and showed him our offense. He figured out how to fit in," Ryan said. "He is as good as anyone I've ever coached at adapting to a system and improving as a player."

Penney, a native of Auckland, New Zealand, was recruited by Tony Bennett, a Wisconsin assistant and the son of former Badgers coach Dick Bennett. The younger Bennett was playing in New Zealand and fell in love with Penney's raw ability. He persuaded Penney to come to Wisconsin, giving two disparate places a common bond.

He is still revered in New Zealand, for which he played in the 2000 Olympics and the 2002 World Championships. Penney is equally loved in Madison, if a Web site maintained by Wisconsin student Emily Christopherson is any indication. The comprehensive site ( is touted as one "focusing primarily on Kirk Penney, the greatest Badger ever."

Not too shabby for a guy whose mates all played rugby or soccer growing up.

"He's a great leader by example, and he always has been," Ryan said. "He'll be one of those guys in the community, when people need something done they'll find Kirk Penney."

Or as Tab Baldwin, Penney's summer coach last season in New Zealand, once put it, "All the mums in New Zealand probably would wish for Kirk as a son-in-law."

For now, though, Penney's on-court contributions are of the most importance. After lighting up Weber State for 21 points in the NCAA tournament opener, he shot only 2-for-12 (and 0-for-5 on threes) in a 61-60 victory over Tulsa. Ryan would like to see those numbers improve today, but the fact that Wisconsin won is further proof of Penney's evolution.

"He went 2-for-12, that's a stat," Ryan said. "Still, he drew a lot of attention. We had some other guys open for some shots because of it."

Said Penney, "At first we struggled with the offense, but we've come a long way."

Halfway around the world, and still going.

Michael Rand is at