Ed Johansen has never been a pretty basketball player.
Even before he got his hair cut in an semi-Mohawk style, and even before he got a black eye when he walked into a no-parking sign, nobody ever called him pretty.
Johansen, a 6-foot 9-inch junior center who transferred to UC Irvine from Creighton and redshirted last year, is the antithesis of a finesse player. And, even for a power player, he's not exactly smooth.
"We knew from watching him in the summer that he could be effective," said Tim Murphy, UCI assistant coach. "But he looks awkward when he shoots and you still find yourself saying, 'Hey, that went in .' "
Johansen has surprised a lot people, even Coach Bill Mulligan.
"He's playing really well, really well," Mulligan said. "I don't think any of us expected him to shoot as well as he has."
Johansen, who has started the last two games after beginning the season on the bench, is shooting 68% from the floor and 100% (11 of 11) from the free-throw line. He has scored 47 points and grabbed 33 rebounds, and he leads the team with 6 blocked shots, all in only 92 minutes of play.
"When I got here, they totally changed my free throw shot," Johansen said. "I shot 62% from the line at Creighton. So much of it is mental, just believing it will go in.
"My confidence in my outside shot has improved, too," he said after shooting three-pointers before practice. "When you can show them you can make a few out there, it makes it easier to score underneath."
Johansen showed a group of family and friends a few things during the Amana-Hawkeye tournament last week in Iowa City, including his new three-in-one hairdo (military-length sides, a Ricky Nelson at 12 flattop and over-the-collar locks in the back).
His mother, brother, two sisters and assorted other relatives and friends who made the trip from his hometown of Papillion, Neb., saw Johansen make a key jump hook and four free throws in the final eight minutes as UCI beat Jacksonville, 79-76, in the tournament opener.
In the two tournament games, he made 12 of 17 shots and totaled 25 points and 15 rebounds. His performance pleased his mother more than the hair did, but Johansen said no one was surprised.
"She's used to me doing strange things," he said, smiling, "so it was no setback when I busted off this new look."
It's his new look on the court, however, that has Mulligan smiling.
The Anteaters played the role of perfect guests during the Amana-Hawkeye tournament. They were the life of the party until it came time to let their hosts take over the spotlight.
UCI, which lost to Iowa, 124-88, in the championship game, elicited the same comment over and over from coaches, tournament officials and fans alike: "They sure are fun to watch."
Apparently, Irvine has to travel halfway across the country to be appreciated.
The Anteaters still can't draw at home, even with a sparkling new complex. They have sold 629 season tickets in the community--but many of those seats remain empty for all but a few games--and the students continue to stay away. The faithful fans are mostly faculty and staff members, who have purchased 231 season tickets. When the center opened, all seats sold to the general public were $9, but UCI is now offering some single-game seats for $7.
"There are people in the community who buy season tickets for $120 and come to just two games," said Mike Carroll, a UCI associate athletic director. "We'd have close to 2,500 every game if just the tickets distributed (including complimentary tickets) were used."
Irvine students can purchase season tickets for $20, which works out to $1.54 a game. But only 139 have so far. Mulligan started making regular visits to the fraternity and sorority houses and the dorms this year, but the average attendance for the first two games this season was 1,773.
"I know this is an academically oriented school--you see them (students) walking around the campus like this," Mulligan said, walking with his head buried in an imaginary book, "but they can't be studying all the time.
"The Bren (Center) is a two-minute walk from the dorms. They can buy season tickets for the best seats in the place for $20. But they don't come. It's very discouraging for the players."
And every time he visits another place such as Iowa City--where you couldn't get a hotel room in town during a basketball tournament that featured Irvine, Jacksonville and Navy--he gets a little more depressed.
"If I was a Midwestern kid and I saw the enthusiasm and facilities at Iowa, I'd go to Iowa," Mulligan said. "If I was a California kid and saw the enthusiasm and facilities at Iowa, I still might go to Iowa."
Mulligan decided to relieve freshman Justin Anderson of his starting role, and Anderson was, well, relieved.
"It took some pressure off," said Anderson, who shot 29% from the field in four games as a starter and 67% in one game coming off the bench. "It was a little tough for a kid from North Dakota to be introduced in front of 15,000 screaming (Iowa) fans.