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NCAA Midwest Regional
Badgers' Penney happy to assume leadership role

By C. L. Brown
The Courier-Journal

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Wisconsin guard Kirk Penney is sure to be a focal point for the University of Kentucky basketball team tonight. But Penney is keeping an eye on his own team.

''I kind of take to watching the other guys, making sure they're OK,'' said the senior from New Zealand, who was part of the Badgers' run to the 2000 Final Four in his freshman season.

''When you're younger, you're just thinking about what you have to do.''

Penney, who leads the Badgers in scoring (16.1 points per game) and assists (3.1),has the experience to take such a leadership role. Fresh off that Final Four appearance, he played for New Zealand in the 2000 Olympics. He also was the second-leading scorer for New Zealand's fourth-place team in last summer's World Basketball Championships.

He is Wisconsin's only senior and the only player who was on the 2000 Final Four team.

''He'll be one of those guys in the community that people find when they need things done,'' Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. ''He has that presence people believe in.''

The Badgers, the Midwest Regional's fifth seed, will need a few believers when they face UK.

It is the 15th time Wisconsin has faced a No. 1-ranked team. The Badgers' lone win came against Ohio State in 1962. They last faced a No. 1 team in 1979, although this marks the fourth time in four years they have met a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Wisconsin lost to top seeds Michigan State in 2000 and Maryland in 2002 but defeated No. 1 seed Arizona 66-59 in 2000. Not many gave the Badgers a chance to win that game either.

Penney welcomes the role of underdog.

''I love this position; there's nothing to lose,'' he said. ''You just go out and see what happens. Seeding is always irrelevant.''

Penney has beaten some odds of his own. After all, New Zealand isn't exactly a recruiting hotbed. It just so happened that Tony Bennett, a Wisconsin assistant coach and son of former Badgers head coach Dick Bennett, coached a New Zealand professional team.

Tony Bennett recommended Penney to his father. But the 6-foot-5 guard received a scholarship offer only after Madison, Wis., native Reece Gaines turned it down to attend the University of Louisville.

Penney arrived as an accurate shooter, but there was not much more to his game.

''He was pretty much one-dimensional,'' Ryan said. ''For us to be successful, he had to work on his passing skills, attack the rim and work on his post-up moves. He did it. He figured out how to fit in. The good ones do.''

Ryan, who is in his second season at Wisconsin, faced Penney twice while he coached at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the scouting reports basically said stop Penney's jumper and he'll shut down.

Opponents can't say that anymore. Penney has increased his assist averageevery season, from less than one per game as a freshman to 3.1 this season. More than half of his fieldgoal attempts in his first two seasons were from three-point range. Since bulking up to 220 pounds his junior season, he's become more effective going to the basket.

''He's thrived -- as far as adapting -- as much as any player I've ever coached,'' Ryan said. ''He's smart, therefore he learns. He learns, so he gets better. That's a nice cycle to have.''

The word Ryan uses to describe Penney's game now is complete. Penney, who has started every game the past two seasons, shoots 49.1 percent inside the arc. He also has upped his rebounding average from 1.4 his freshman season to 6.0, second on the team.

He certainly has made an impression on UK.

''Kirk Penney is a very poised and seasoned player,'' coach Tubby Smith said. ''He's very smart and tough on both ends of the floor. He makes other people around him better.''

More than anything else, Penney has tried to share his big-game approach with the rest of the team.

''You try to contribute any way you can,'' he said. ''I'm trying to get it done any way possible. I look around at my teammates and see the same type of attitude. It's just an incredible thing.''