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UW's Penney gains a world of confidence
11:21 PM 10/02/02
Tom Oates Wisconsin State Journal columnist


indentWhether he was hanging with Dirk Nowitzki or dining with Yao Ming, Kirk Penney heard his share of foreign languages last month at the World Championships in Indianapolis.
indentIt was a good old-fashioned English word, however, that Penney brought back to Madison.
indentNot that Penney, the University of Wisconsin's senior wingman, has ever lacked for confidence. On the basketball court, he's always had a scorer's mentality. However, when Penney talks about his breakthrough international performance while playing for New Zealand at the Worlds, the word just keeps popping up.
indent"If I can take anything from the summer," Penney said Wednesday, "I would hope that confidence is definitely one of those things."
indentConfidence is something Penney returns with in seemingly larger portions every fall. In 2000 he played for New Zealand in the Olympics and in 2001 he participated in the Goodwill Games. Both times he came back a better player.
indentBut this year was different because Penney and New Zealand caused a stir in Indianapolis. Indeed, if the demise of Team USA was the No. 1 story, the rise of the previously obscure Kiwis was No. 1A.
indentAnd Penney, as New Zealand's second-leading scorer, played a much greater role than he did in the Olympics two years earlier. This time Penney went head-to-head with the best players in the world and held his own, averaging 16.9 points per game.
indent"Just with experience and growth and learning the game and (maturing) physically, you're going to get more confident and you're going to feel like you belong at that level," Penney said.
indent"When you're 19 years old and playing in the Olympics, it's an awesome experience and you're so glad to be there, but this is a whole 'nother deal now. Your role is just a lot different. Confidence is huge, it really is. My team had it. Every individual on that team had a lot of confidence in themselves and it rubbed off on everyone else. Obviously that's a big thing and it comes with experience."
indentNew Zealand finished in fourth place, by far its best showing ever. The U.S., which was coached by the Milwaukee Bucks' George Karl and included former UW star Michael Finley of the Dallas Mavericks, finished a shocking sixth.
indentThe U.S. beat New Zealand in their only meeting, but Penney was impressive against an all-NBA lineup. He posted up Finley and scored on a turnaround early in the game. Later he drove right through the U.S. defense for a layup, showcasing the all-around offensive game he developed during his junior season at UW.
indentPenney and Finley exchanged pleasantries briefly after the game, but otherwise didn't have much contact. The U.S. was the only one of the 15 teams that stayed in a different hotel, and Penney got to know players like Germany's Nowitzki much better than he did the Americans.
indent"I think international basketball has definitely caught up (to the U.S.)," said Penney, who saw the gap closing when Lithuania almost beat Team USA at the Olympics and Brazil gave it a scare in the Goodwill Games.
indent"It could easily have gone either way in those two games especially. But I'm not going to for a second rip on the U.S., because they are just unbelievable players. They're so skillful it's ridiculous when you watch them sometimes. You saw in the World Championships how the rest of the world is catching up in terms of skill but also in terms of belief. They're starting to believe they can do it."
indentOne reason for Team USA's demise was that international teams had almost two months of preparation compared to a few weeks for the Americans. That busy schedule could leave Penney physically drained for UW's season, but he's used to it after the previous two summers.
indent"I think year by year you get better and better at coping with that," he said. "I did go home for a little bit (due to a death in the family) and that was great to get the mind ready for this upcoming year, just reflecting and focusing on what's at hand."
indentWhat's at hand for Penney is to improve on last season, when the Badgers shared the Big Ten title and he was named first-team all-conference. After going against bigger and stronger players all summer, Penney hopes the confidence he gained carries over to his senior year of college.
indent"When you have the opportunity to play against top NBA players and you come back and play college guys, there should be confidence," Penney said. "But that'll only take you so far because there are some absolutely unbelievable players in college. ... Still, it does instill some confidence and if it can rub off on the guys, that's a good thing."
indentIn any language.