UCI foes know to fear fro

There are the statistics, the persona, the heroics and the tenacity that all combine to define Mike Wilder's four-year UC Irvine men's basketball career.

But any discussion of the 6-foot-2 senior swing man, whose status as big man on campus is as undeniable as it is diametrical (most believe he is closer to 6-0), might as well start with something even more obvious.

"It's the hair, first," UCI Coach Russell Turner said of arguably college basketball's most dynamic 'do. "There's no denying you've got to have swag to roll like that. And then to be able to back that up as a player, and more important, as a guy ..."

To focus on only the visual might prompt the hint of flamboyance. But only moments into watching Wilder work either a three-second lane or a crowded room, one would discover that beneath those flowing follicles lies the smile, determination and humility of an everyman.

"He didn't get that 'do because people started thinking that's cool," Turner said. "He has been rocking that thing for a while. He's the same way as a guy. He is himself and he is incredibly likable, yet at the same time, incredibly competitive and driven."

Wilder, known with reverence by the "Antourage" student-rooting section as Afro Thunder, has flourished under his elongated curls since arriving from Long Beach Wilson High, where he was valedictorian, senior class vice president and a CIF Southern Section Player of the Year in volleyball.

"It started at student orientation, when all the [incoming UCI freshmen] come and stay in the dorms," said Wilder, who heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at UC Davis had amassed 1,020 points, 561 rebounds and 211 three-pointers (third in program history) in 120 career games. "I made so many connections there. And, me being a social person, I realized I could really thrive here, because everyone is so friendly."

Extending a kind, inquisitive hand to strangers came long before the need to follow trough on three-pointers for Wilder, whose parents, particularly his mother Lineta, indoctrinated him on the benefits of friendship, hard work and having fun.

"Everybody likes Mike," UCI senior guard Daman Starring said. "Mike should run for mayor of the world. Every place we go, Mike is saying hello to somebody."

Wilder's father Robert, meanwhile, focused on helping develop his athletic prowess. The younger Wilder began with basketball, then added volleyball, which eventually earned equal status. But larger scholarship dollars in basketball, as well as the somewhat limited value of a 6-0 outside hitter in volleyball, helped him choose basketball when UCI came calling.

An All-CIF power forward in high school, Wilder knew a shift to the backcourt would be necessary for collegiate success.

"He's one heck of an underdog story on the court," said Turner, who marvels at Wilder's ability to handle taller, heavier opponents down low, then scurry to stay in front of quicker guards. "You can't look at our team without hearing, 'Man, that guy with the afro' ... I mean, that's what I hear over and over from the people who see us play once. 'I can't tell what it is about him,' but everyone can tell that it's something."

When Turner first took over for the Anteaters, following Wilder's freshman year, the coach began breaking UCI video to evaluate personnel.

"I'm watching him, thinking 'How is [he] going to be good enough?' " Turner said. "One of the amazing things about college basketball is that sometimes, guys are just good, no matter what preconceived notions people may have about what one player ought to look like. [Wilder] is just a good basketball player and he's good in so many areas that his overall value is so much greater than the sum of his individual skills."

Three-point shooting is his most obvious talent. He made a three-pointer with 7.8 seconds left to help UCI defeat UC Santa Barbara, 62-60, at home on Feb. 2. And he was integral to the Anteaters' last two victories over Long Beach State, which has won the last three conference regular-season titles.

"He always steps up when he needs to and hits big shots," Starring said. "He does what needs to be done when it's supposed to be done."

Wilder's versatility and unselfishness are legend at UCI, the campus of which he has resided all four years. After a string of injuries, he played power forward much of his sophomore season, when he averaged a career-best 5.7 rebounds per game. As a junior, he led UCI in scoring (11.5 per game) and three-pointers (78, shooting nearly 39% from beyond the arc).

Entering Saturday, Wilder was averaging 8.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in 2012-13. Wilder has helped the Anteaters post their first winning season since 2007-08 as they enter the Big West Conference Tournament next week at Honda Center.

"Whatever we need him to do to win the game, he's going to do it," senior Adam Folker said. "That's understood by him and the rest of our team. It's almost overlooked, because he does it so often."

Wilder, who is set to graduate with a degree in psychology and social behavior, would like to play professional basketball overseas. But if not, he foresees a career working with children, perhaps in a coaching capacity.

Whatever may lie ahead, he is grateful for his time at UCI.

"I'm very proud to be able to wear Irvine across my chest," Wilder said.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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