Before Bo Ryan became the winningest basketball coach in Wisconsin school history, and one of the best coaches in the game, he was a rookie coach at a school where basketball was an afterthought. There were a lot of unknowns surrounding Coach Ryan when he first arrived in Madison. But guard Kirk Penney immediately shattered the uncertainty by leading Bo Ryan and Wisconsin to back-to-back Big 10 titles.
In 2001, Penney, a junior, was one of the only returning players from the (dare I say fluky) Final Four run in Dick Bennett’s final season as head coach two years prior. He became an immediate team leader, averaging a team-high 15 points even though he shared the backcourt with future lottery pick Devin Harris. He also proved his impressive versatility by averaging 5 rebounds and 2 assists. He was named to the All-Big 10 First Team. His personal success translated to wins for the team, as Wisconsin won a share of the Big 10 championship for the first time since 1946. Yes, the last time Wisconsin won the Big 10 Championship was when Harry Truman was president of the United States and was probably Josh Gasser’s first year on campus. But Penney and Bo Ryan teamed up to end that drought and bring a winning culture to Wisconsin basketball.
Penney’s success continued in to his senior season, when he averaged a team-high 16 points and 3 assists, while finishing 2nd in rebounds with 6. He was once again named to the All-Big 10 First team, and Wisconsin won another Big 10 Championship, this time outright. He was also named as an honorable mention All-American. Penney also took Wisconsin to the Sweet 16, only to lose to the #1 overall seed Kentucky Wildcats. Oh, how the tables have turned.
For his success in gapping the bridge between the Dick Bennett era and the Bo Ryan tenure, Penney became one of the most popular players in Wisconsin history. He was a great scorer and rebounder, and was tough as nails. Without him easing Bo Ryan into his coaching tenure, we may not have had as much success as we have enjoyed over the past decade.