College sports
Transactions
Recruiting
Teams
Football
Men's Basketball
Women's Basketball
  Penney gives Wisconsin much-needed scoring touch
 
  By Andy Meister
Note: The following stories are the most recent wire transmissions from SportsTicker and other ESPN.com sources. Versions of some of these stories appear elsewhere on the service.

Madison, Wisconsin (U-WIRE) -- It is fifteen minutes after a men's basketball practice. The coaches have left, the writers have left, and the players have left the Kohl Center basketball court.

Two people remain.

Shooting jump shot after jump shot, while former NBA player and team manager Tony Bennett grabs rebound after rebound, Badger freshman guard Kirk Penney is, more often than not, the last player to leave the court.

That work ethic has been a major factor in Penney's journey from his hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, to Madison and a spot in the Wisconsin starting lineup.

"He's what they call a gym rat," UW senior guard Jon Bryant said. "He's always in the gym. He loves basketball and loves working at it. That's only going to help him in the future and will make him a great player."

This season has been something of a baptism-by-fire for Penney, who has gone, in one year, from playing in front of crowds that rarely numbered more than a couple thousand, to starting in games on national TV in packed Big Ten arenas.

While he had a slow start and few minutes early in the Badger season, Penney earned a starting role and went, almost overnight, from playing a limited role to having over 30 minutes a game.

In his first start at Purdue Jan. 15, Penney shot 7-14 and scored a season-high 17 points. Penney has started every game since.

"Kirk is adjusting still, every game," Bryant said. "He's only going to get better. I think the big reason why he went from a guy who didn't play much to a starting role was that he does pretty much everything. He's pretty consistent defensively. He can get rebounds. He can offer some shooting from the outside as well as penetration. I think that's probably the biggest reason why he got into the starting role."

The biggest indication of UW's confidence in Penney has perhaps been their reliance on him for two game-winning shot attempts in Big Ten games. Trailing by two at home against both Ohio State and Iowa, Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett drew up plays designed to free Penney for an open three-pointer.

Penney missed both shots and was visibly shaken after the Hawkeye loss on Saturday, but now the freshman is attempting to regain his confidence and move on.

"It's just another shot, and you have to look at it that way," Penney said. "I don't think you can put it behind you right away. You want to look at it and learn from it, so in the future the same thing will not happen."

The pressure faced by Penney in the Big Ten is a far cry from what existed a year ago. Playing in relative obscurity for a team in Auckland, New Zealand that was coached by Tony Bennett, Penney received little attention from the U.S.

However, Tony Bennett saw potential in Penney, who has both shooting ability and size at 6-foot-5. Tony Bennett alerted his father Dick Bennett, who sent assistant coach Brad Soderberg to New Zealand to recruit Penney.

"I saw Kirk as being really complete." Tony Bennett said. "He can shoot, he's a good passer and he can drive. Also he's got good size to him. He hasn't had the experience to develop his game as much as a lot of kids here, so hopefully he can develop more and more. I saw a poise in him too. He doesn't get rattled too easily. There are adjustments he'll have to make to get used to the athleticism, but he has the skills and the intangibles."

A year later, the Badgers have a new starting guard, who, according to Dick Bennett, had taken a few pages out of Tony's playbook.

"I can see Tony's influence with his fakes and the way he handles the ball," Bennett said.

Although it has been a significant adjustment both on and off the court, Penney, who does not expect to have a chance to return home until at least next summer, has been helped by Tony Bennett, who returned to the United States this summer as well.

"It's a 17-hour plane flight from where he's from to here and when you come that far, halfway around the world, just to have a familiar face, just to have a friend here and someone who he knows hopefully helps him," Tony Bennett said. "But it's a big adjustment, you're away from your family, college is different, culturally it's different."

However, Penney is thankful for the chance to play here, and now that he has a key role for UW, is determined to make a contribution.

"I was waiting for the opportunity to come along and was anxious for it," Penney said. "When it did come, I was thankful to be out there playing. Now it's up to me to perform."