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Originally published February 3, 2010 at 10:03 PM | Page modified February 4, 2010 at 9:11 PM

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Nic Wise key to keeping Arizona basketball afloat

When Lute Olson and his interim successors were gone, and some key players left early for the NBA, Nic Wise had a decision to make at Arizona. The point guard's decision to stay has paid big dividends for the Wildcats, who play Washington Thursday night.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Somebody had to stay and rebuild Arizona basketball.

Legendary coach Lute Olson retired, and his successors — interim coaches Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell — were not retained.

Junior standouts Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger left early for the NBA, and star recruits Abdul Gaddy and Mike Moser broke verbal scholarship commitments, signing with Washington and UCLA, respectively.

"It wasn't looking real bright for me to come back," Nic Wise said. "At the time, I was thinking just throw my name in the draft or go overseas and make a lot of money over there."

In a phone interview Tuesday, Wise recounted the days last summer when he deliberated between turning pro or returning to school.

The tipping point was Arizona securing coach Sean Miller, a newcomer to the West who spent the previous five years building Xavier into an Atlantic-10 powerhouse.

Hired in early April, Miller made Wise, a 5-foot-10 point guard, a priority.

"He didn't pressure me to make a decision one way or the other," Wise said. "He told me how much he would love to have me here, and he backed up and let me make my own decision.

"That's all I could've asked for, rather than somebody I don't really know just harping on me and pressuring me. He gave me some space and allowed me to make the right decision for me and my family."

Two months after Miller arrived, Wise committed to Arizona for the fourth time.

Rated one of the nation's top prospects out of Kingwood High School in Houston, Wise chose Arizona and hoped to follow a long parade of Wildcats guards drafted into the NBA.

When Olson took a leave of absence before the 2007-08 season, Wise considered transferring. He thought about leaving again before his junior season, when Olson didn't return and Arizona named Pennell interim coach.

"It's not what I expected coming into college," Wise said. "I signed to play for Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, and then end up getting four different guys.

"I take it in stride and just think of it as learning from four different sets of eyes and four different perspectives and schemes."

With five freshmen in the rotation this season, the Wildcats started slowly. During a stretch in December and January, they were 2-4.

In the past two weeks, however, Arizona rolled to four straight wins and vaulted to the top of the conference with a 6-3 record.

The Wildcats (12-9 overall) discovered a star in freshman forward Derrick Williams, and they're receiving major contributions from junior Jamelle Horne and sophomore Kyle Fogg.

In the middle of it all is Wise, who is averaging 16 points, 3.8 assists and 1.9 steals, all team highs.

"I don't know if there are too many point guards in the country who mean more to their team than Nic means to Arizona," Miller said. "In November and December, he had to play exceptionally well for us to have a chance to win, and in a way he kept us afloat."

Wise led Arizona in scoring eight times, and tied a career high with five three-pointers while scoring 30 points in Sunday's 76-72 win over California. He scored the go-ahead basket with 10 seconds left and won Pac-10 Player of the Week honors.

"Nic came back for the right reasons," Miller said. "He's going to get his degree in May, which is very important. I think he came back to have a great senior year.

"Arizona will always look at Nic as a really special player in their history because of what he went through."

Arizona puts its win streak on the line Thursday night against Washington (14-7, 4-5), which has won four consecutive games at Edmundson Pavilion.

Wise and Huskies senior Quincy Pondexter have traveled similar paths.

They're past role players who've matured into captains. They're the only seniors on their respective teams, and they're conference Player of the Year candidates.

"Me and Nic, we're definitely the old guys of the league," Pondexter said. "We've been to the (NCAA) tournament. We've been in the doghouse. We've been through everything."

Said Wise: "It's a little easier for him to teach his guys what to do and where to be instead of me, because he's been there four years. I'm kind of like another freshman learning a new system and a new coaching staff."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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