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Saving the best for last

Penney lands leadership role as sole senior

Last Updated: Oct. 2, 2002

Madison - Even if Kirk Penney felt he needed the break, he wouldn't think of taking it.

Badgers fans' favorite New Zealander is the only senior on Wisconsin's men's basketball team which as impossible as it may seem will be younger than it was a year ago.

However, expectations are higher. Whereas the 2001-'02 team was expected to struggle, the 2002-'03 version has been ranked among the top 25 nationally in various pre-season publications and has five of its top seven players returning.

Penney, fresh off a trip to the World Championship last month and a visit home because of a death in the family, is ready to take on the challenges of the new season.

Practice begins Oct. 12. The first game is Nov. 15 against Eastern Washington in a first-round game of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Classic at the Kohl Center.

"There is a lot of potential with this team," he said Wednesday. "We're just looking forward to going out there in our first exhibition game and seeing what we can do."

That potential begins with Penney, an all-Big Ten choice last season and the team's second-leading scorer in 2000-'01. If his performance at the World Championships last month is any indication, the 6-foot-5 guard should be able to pick up where he left off.

Penney averaged 16.9 points a game, second-highest on the team, to help New Zealand to a surprising fourth-place finish, its best showing ever. He shot 45.5% from three-point range.

Penney scored 16 points in a 110-62 loss to Team USA, comprised of National Basketball Association players. He reached double figures in eight of the nine games.

"If I can take anything from this summer, I hope that confidence is one of those things," Penney said. "When you end up playing against the top NBA players and come back and play in college, there should be confidence, but that can only take you so far."

International competition is nothing new to Penney.

He spent the summer after his freshman year competing in the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, averaging 6.5 points as New Zealand finished 11th. When New Zealand finished sixth in the Goodwill Games last year, he led the team in scoring with 14.8 points a game.

This year the team spent part of the summer in Germany playing the Germans and Yugoslavians in preparation for the World Championships. In Indianapolis, he rubbed elbows, sometimes literally, with NBA all-stars such as Michael Finley.

"We were talking about the game and how I'd love it if he'd come back and work out with us during the summer," Penney said of his on-the-court conversation with the Badgers' all-time scoring leader. "It was just cool to be in that environment."

But he's glad to be back on campus, too.

At the moment he is catching up on his school work and playing pickup games with teammates. Come Oct. 12, it is back to the business on the court where he's ready to do whatever is asked of him.

"I'm just going to go out there and play my game and do everything I can for us to be successful," he said. "If that requires a greater leadership role then so be it. It's as simple as that."

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 3, 2002.