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Rob Schultz: A Penney for your thoughts

UW guard enjoyed exciting off-season

By Rob Schultz
October 3, 2002

In many ways, Kirk Penney's life hasn't changed much since he first stepped on the University of Wisconsin campus as a freshman three years ago.

He's still a bit weary from all the summer travel while playing international basketball with his team from New Zealand. He's still wide-eyed when he looks at all the opportunities that exist for him in the United States. Those same eyes still wink when he tells you that he still puts a high premium on having fun.

That's why his development into one of the country's top collegiate basketball players has been so refreshing.

After dominating Big Ten Conference games at times last season as a junior with the Badgers, the 6-foot-5 guard from Auckland found out he belonged on the same court with the world's best players while helping lead the Kiwis to a surprising fourth-place finish at the recently completed World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis.

Just don't ask him about driving past former UW star Michael Finley for a layup or how he put the clamps on NBA All-Star Dirk Nowitzki. His efforts in Indianapolis proved he has a future as a professional. But Penney - who finished second on his team in scoring (16.9) and minutes played (31.1), and shot 40.8 percent from the field (51-125) overall and 45.5 percent from 3-point range (20-44) - dismissed such talk.

He got more excited talking about rubbing elbows with Nowitzki in the hotel that all the teams - with the exception of the hoity-toity and overrated U.S. squad - stayed at in Indianapolis. And he really got animated when the subject turned to the Badgers' upcoming season.

"I'm so excited to have a coach for a second year in a row and just, like, know what's going on, know the system," said Penney, who played for Dick Bennett as a freshman, Brad Soderberg as a sophomore and Bo Ryan as a junior.

In each of those years, Penney started the season slowly as he tried to find his niche. Last year was particularly difficult because he added weight and strength after Ryan had him add an inside game to go along with his former role as a sniper.

Penney said he thoroughly enjoyed playing for Ryan last season when the Badgers grabbed a share of the Big Ten Conference title. "But playing for him and knowing exactly where he's coming from (this season) is really going to be good," said Penney, who has maintained the weight and strength that he gained before last season.

Add to it the experience and confidence he also has gained and many are expecting this season to be beyond good for him. Penney already is one of 50 players chosen for the Wooden Award Preseason All-America Team. There are few returning Big Ten guards that can match his lofty credentials, so he also will be a candidate for conference player of the year honors.

Mention the confidence factor to Penney and that's where he sees the biggest change in his game. He gained some playing a minor role helping the Badgers reach the Final Four as a freshman. He gained some more playing a minor role for New Zealand in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

It was far different this summer playing with New Zealand in Indianapolis.

"When you're 19 years old and playing in the Olympics, it's an awesome experience and you're so happy to be there. This is a whole different deal now," Penney said, "your role is a lot different.

"Confidence is huge," he added. "My team had it and every individual on that team had confidence in themselves and it rubbed off on everyone else."

Penney is hoping the same situation will occur with the young but talented Badgers, who will be counting on his confidence, talent and experience as the team's lone senior.

His plan is to do everything asked of him to help the Badgers win. "If that requires a great leadership role, so be it. It's as simple as that," said Penney. "There are no pre-thoughts going into the season in terms of that. If I feel like, or if coach feels like, it needs to be there vocally or by example ... it'll have to be there."

Penney has been playing catch-up at school because the World Championships were still going on during the first week of school and then he had to fly to New Zealand for a week after a close friend of his family died unexpectedly.

He spent much of his time in New Zealand preparing his mind for his final season with the Badgers. "There were a lot of things on my mind. But it was good just to be with family and just mellow out. You have to do that now and then," he said.

Penney thought about what's most important in his life and reminded himself not to look too far ahead and enjoy his senior year.

"I don't want to take any of that enjoyment away because of wanting to play professionally. That will come," he said. "If I work hard enough, there will be opportunities there somewhere. I just want to enjoy my last basketball season with the Badgers. It's been so much fun so fast, such a thrill and I'm so glad to come over to the States and do this. It's the time of your life. You're so young and there are so many good times to be had."

Published: 9:26 AM 10/03/02