Penney's advice for George Mason: Go out and fight

"Don't let the pressure or the fact that you're on TV, especially for the mid-major schools, influence you."

kirk penney 88 (photo credit: )
kirk penney 88
(photo credit: )
Teams like George Mason University, underdogs still alive in the NCAA Tournament, should have the following words of wisdom tacked onto the bulletin boards in their locker rooms. "Stick to your guns, to what's worked all year. You're there because you're a good team and you've won a lot of games. You can't get in the spotlight and think: 'All right, it's time to start something different.' "Don't let the pressure or the fact that you're on TV, especially for the mid-major schools, influence you." These teams should listen carefully to those words, because they come from a man with big-game NCAA experience. They come from Kirk Penney, a former Wisconsin Badger and current reserve guard for defending Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv. As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in 2000, Penney helped to improbably take his team, seeded eighth that year, to the Final Four. Rarely does a college basketball fan or expert take a look at his bracket, point to an eightseed and think to himself, "This team is a shoe-in to get past the second weekend and make it to the Final Four." But it's eight-seeds like Penney's squad at Wisconsin that give hope each year to the under-the-radar George Masons in the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin's road to the Final Four, which ended at the hands of eventual national champion Michigan State in the semifinals, was an unorthodox one. After dispatching ninth-seeded Fresno State in the first round, the Badgers shocked top-seeded Arizona to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. "Once we beat Arizona there was more belief," Penney said. "It was like all right man, if we can beat the [number] one seed, we can do even more... It was definitely a turning point." During the second weekend of the tournament Wisconsin knocked off fourth-seeded LSU and then Big 10 conference foe and sixth-seeded Purdue to reach the final weekend of the tournament. "It was exciting going to the Big Dance," Penney recalled. "It had been a great start to the year, but overall it was an OK year. Did we think we were going to the Final Four? I don't think so. But it's the tournament. You take things one game at a time, and before you know it, you're living a dream run." Teams like George Mason, Bradley, and Wichita State were living that dream run entering this weekend's play. None of the three teams was seeded higher than seventh, and not one of them was considered dangerous before the tournament began. Go ask powerhouses-turnedvictims Michigan State, North Carolina, Kansas, Pittsburgh and Tennessee if they're dangerous now. While Bradley's run came to an end Thursday night against top-seeded Memphis, Wichita State's run ended Friday night at the hands of the George Mason Patriots, a Colonial Athletic Association school in Fairfax, Virginia. Now the Patriots are an upset over No. 1 seed Connecticut on Sunday away from incredibly reaching the Final Four. There aren't many superstars on the Patriots, but there weren't any household names on Penney's Final Four squad either, something that didn't stop the Badgers from beating the odds and reaching the national semifinals. The Badgers‚ leading scorer, Mark Vershaw, averaged just 11.8 points per game, and nobody else on the roster averaged in double figures. It was a team effort, Penney said, that drove Wisconsin to success. "We had such great guys on that team," Penney said. There was a special chemistry there the whole year. In hindsight, when you look at how successful it was, it was something where our coach was always trying to instill in us that defense can help you beat anyone in the country, and we proved that." The Badgers employed a slow-paced, unattractive style of play that season, and in the tournament they never scored more than 66 points but also never allowed more than 60. Even though it might not have been pretty to watch, it produced wins, and that's all that mattered to Penney and his teammates. "We really slowed it down and had an amazing defensive coach," Penney said. He [coach Dick Bennett] believed in the style of play, and got us to believe it. That's why we were so successful." The combination of buying into Bennett's system and playing without any pressure alleviated Wisconsin's run, Penney said. "There wasn't any pressure on us whatsoever," he said. "Once you make the tournament, to a lot of teams, it's a successful year, and what happens after that is unpredictable. You just go out there and fight and see what happens as the underdog." The Patriots' Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, Lamar Butler and co. will go out Sunday night and try and replicate what Penney's team did - play pressurefree basketball, defy the odds makers, knock off a top seed, and make it to the Final Four. "It's all about buying into the system and having the right guys and the right role players and guys just stepping up at the right time," Penney said. So far, the Patriots have heeded to Penney's recipe for success ingredient-by-ingredient. Throw in a pinch of topseed upset in the Elite Eight, and they will have met the same end result as Penney's squad - a rewarding and previously inconceivable trip to the Final Four.