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Designs of success

Badgers' Penney has developed all-around game

Last Updated: Nov. 12, 2002

Madison - Every basketball player has a little artistry in his game.

The sport fosters creativity. Some dunk with authority, others prefer to lay the ball in. Some pass with passion; others score at will.

Put together, the game produces a collage of awkward grace and powerful finesse.

From that, Kirk Penney created a masterpiece.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior still doesn't dunk (at least not in games) but does almost everything else. Once strictly a three-point threat, he can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. He can muscle his way around the post, either posting up or defending bigger players. Flash a double-team his way and he can get the ball to teammates in positions to score.

Three years after coming to campus as a rugby-tough New Zealander, Penney is not only Wisconsin's best player but one of the toughest matchups in the Big Ten.

"People have to guard Kirk in more ways than they had to a couple of years ago," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who coached against Penney for two years at UW-Milwaukee. "That's to his credit because he's worked on it."

People have noticed. Penney enters the season as a pre-season Big Ten all-conference pick and is one of a handful of players on the pre-season watch list for the Wooden Award.

On top of all that, it's safe to assume he is one of a few players whose artistry isn't limited to the basketball court. He can get down with a pencil and sketch pad, too.

Penney has loved drawing as long as he has loved basketball and was smart enough to find a major that lets him use his talents. As a landscape architecture major, he spends most of his day drawing.

His latest assignment involves redesigning space around the state Capitol and along the city's infamous State St. It's not the type of doodling and sketching he did growing up, but it serves the same purpose.

"I find drawing very therapeutic," he said. "I really do. Coming to class, you've got designs that are detailed drawings to do. It keeps you busy but it is not necessarily the most mind-challenging stuff, so it's therapeutic."

Penney made the Big Ten's all-academic team last season, the only first-team player on the list. Depending on how life goes, he wouldn't mind being the guy designing the golf course down the road or studying architecture in graduate school.

Everything he draws, he keeps.

"I'm keeping everything just to form some kind of portfolio at the end of the day," he said. "Hopefully, that will come in handy if that is a profession that I want to pursue."

Penney shouldn't have to worry about that for a while; his immediate future appears to be in basketball.

Besides a possible professional career, he has been a member of the New Zealand national team for three years. He ranked second on the team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and playing time (31.1 minutes) last summer when New Zealand finished a surprising fourth at the World Championship.

It is one of his many highs at Wisconsin, although it hasn't been all gravy.

He left New Zealand and was without family until his father, Paul, moved to a strange land in the middle of his freshman year. He has played for three coaches in four years.

A year ago, he didn't take to Ryan's offense right away, scoring in single digits in five of the first nine games as Wisconsin started 3-6.

Since then, he has become symbolic of the potential for a player to grow under Ryan. Penney, who averaged 15.1 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last season, flourished in the coach's offense, scoring 20 or more points eight times and 15 or more points on nine other occasions as the Badgers finished at 19-13. He also shot better than ever (45.4%).

A year later, he is the team's lone senior and one of two members of the 2000 Final Four team left. (Junior Dave Mader redshirted that season.)

"It's amazing how fast time flies, but it's exciting," Penney said. "I'm the only senior and in the situation that I'm in, I'm just going to enjoy it. This is your last year. You don't want it to go too fast. You want to really enjoy the ride."

It could be a memorable one.

Before Penney is gone, he has a chance to leave Wisconsin with one of the most successful four-year runs of all time.

If the Badgers win 23 games, he would be a part of more victories than any Badgers player and could become the third Badger to play in four NCAA tournaments.

He is 65 points away from becoming the 27th Wisconsin player to score 1,000 points and he could become the first player to be named first-team all-conference twice since Michael Finley left town in 1995.

"I'm still trying to learn, still trying to improve every single time I step on that court," Penney said. "What's the next step? I don't know. I'm just going to go out there and hopefully anything that we've learned as a team throughout the summer or just with a year experience will rub off on each other and be a much more potent team."

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Nov. 13, 2002.