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Posted on Thu, Mar. 27, 2003





Wisconsin star Kirk Penney played against the Dream Team in the 2000 Olympics. That perspective makes Kentucky seem a less awesome opponent.

"Absolutely," said Penney, who has played for his native New Zealand in several international competitions. "That confidence level comes from experiences like that because you've played against the best in the world."

Penney's all-around game has made him a two-time all-Big Ten selection and the player Kentucky most wants to contain. He leads the Badgers in scoring (16.1 ppg), assists (97) and three-point baskets (57) and is second in rebounding (6.0 rpg) and trips to the foul line (117).

"A mini Bird," said UK assistant David Hobbs, meaning Larry Bird.

The surprise is that Auckland, New Zealand -- Auckland, New Zealand? -- produced such a player.

When asked about basketball's importance on the South Pacific island nation, Penney said, "Definitely not one of the major sports. Rugby and cricket dominate the scene, for sure."

Penney played rugby and cricket. An older brother, Rodd, still plays rugby. But Penney grew up with a hoop in his driveway and a love for basketball.

That Penney plays for Wisconsin is a surprise, and not because of geography. Penney recalled playing in a pickup game when he was 14 or 15 against Tony Bennett, now a Wisconsin assistant and the son of the Badgers' former coach, Dick Bennett.

The two played one-on-one which left Bennett with, as Penney put it, "a blood nose."

Then they played again a week later. "I broke his nose," Penney said. "At the time, I felt terrible. He's in a fetal position on the ground and I'm just like, 'Oh my goodness. What have I done?'"

Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan credited Penney working to become more than just a jump shooter. UK plans to test Penney's versatility.

"The first thing we want to do is take away the jump shot," Cliff Hawkins said. "Make him put it on the floor. Our help and rotation is so good, we'll challenge everyone to put it on the floor."