"He couldn't play dead."
--A UC Irvine assistant talking about Jeff Herdman after scouting him in high school.
The first time UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan saw Jeff Herdman play was during the Southern Section playoffs when Herdman was a junior at Mission Viejo High School.
"I thought he was too slow," Mulligan said.
The next year, Mulligan saw Herdman play again and this time he left the gym with a slightly altered opinion.
"He was still slow, but he shot the lights out," he said, smiling.
If Irish eyes do twinkle, Mulligan's flash when he talks about pure shooters. He has been coaching basketball for 33 years and he always has been fascinated with great shooters.
A lot of coaches build their programs on defense because it's not as elusive as a shooting touch, but Mulligan can't resist a guy who cans 20-foot jumpers the way most players shoot layups. And with the three-point line, his fascination can pay big dividends.
So he had his staff give Herdman one more look and--being a staff interested in job security--they agreed the kid wasn't half bad . . . or maybe only half bad.
Irvine, competing with Nevada Reno, Baylor and Cal State Long Beach, won this recruiting battle.
Had the rest of the country's coaches known then what they know now, it would have been a war.
Sophomore forward Jeff Herdman, 6-feet-6 and still not all that quick, is No. 1 in the nation in three-point field-goal percentage (60.6%). He has made 40 of 66 shots from beyond the 19-foot nine-inch stripe.
He has made 16 of his past 25 three-pointers and has made five or more in a game four times. His season average is up to 10 points per game, but in his past four games, he's averaging 21.
"Herdman's on the verge of becoming a big-time shooter," Mulligan said. "I think he's going to shoot like this consistently."
Last season, Herdman showed freshman flashes of what was to come, hitting 13 of 33 three-pointers and shooting 46% from the field overall.
Before this season began, Mulligan called Herdman "a dedicated basketball player" and "the most improved player in our program."
Still, Herdman struggled in the early going. In Irvine's first nine games, he averaged just six points. During the three-game trip at Nevada Las Vegas, Loyola of Chicago and Virginia, he scored a total of 11 points.
"I didn't do anything all summer but lift weights and play basketball," Herdman said. "I played so much this summer, then all that conditioning we did because we were going to run. . . . I was just worn out.
"I was expecting to play well and I was pretty frustrated. I don't think there was any pressure, except the pressure I put on myself. But there were expectations."
When Mulligan decided to junk the run-and-gun and rely on a half-court offense, Herdman and his picture-perfect jump shot started to make an impact.
"After the UCLA game, I really started feeling good," Herdman said. "I think early on I was forcing some shots and that hurt. Now, with us playing a half-court offense, I know I'll get some open shots sooner or later."
The Anteaters changed styles at both ends of the court and Herdman benefited in both cases. His talents aren't exactly suited to a full-court press. And the emergence of Ricky Butler as an offensive force underneath the basket has opened up the perimeter.
"Yeah, Ricky's play has really helped us all," Herdman said. "There are a lot of guys on this team that can dominate offensively.
"I think the defensive change helped me the most. We were trying to concentrate on that defense and I was so terrible in all those drills, it was really frustrating. I just didn't have any confidence."
Herdman's willing to admit to some limitations, but nothing he isn't sure he can overcome.
"I guess I am slow compared to some other players, but I can make up for it in other ways," he said. "I think I'm well-coordinated, not really quick maybe, but I get the job done. They've been saying I was heavy-legged since high school, and even if I did play great defense, Coach Mulligan would still say I didn't."
Mulligan was telling his players their defensive assignments before Saturday's Fresno State game and he finished with, "And Herdman, you get (guard Wilbert) Hooker. . . . Good luck."
Hooker scored nine points in the 82-79 Irvine victory. Herdman had 29, making 10 of 13 shots and five three-pointers.
None of the 10,159 Fresno fans in Selland Arena seemed to notice Herdman's lack of quickness. But they all gasped every time he got the ball in the corner.
"I know Herdman particularly hurt us," Fresno Coach Ron Adams said. "You have to get up on the shooters, but Herdman certainly never lost his rhythm."
These days, Herdman's getting some rave reviews . . . especially for a guy who can't play dead.
Herdman's red hair and boyish good looks make him look as if he just stepped off the set of a peanut butter commercial, but he fancies himself a tough guy.
"Coach Mulligan may rag on my defense, but that's one part of my game that should count for something," he said. "I'm one of the toughest guys on our team. I don't take anything from anyone."
Last year, Nevada Las Vegas' Stacey Augmon, who played on the U.S. Olympic team in 1988, threw an elbow and broke Herdman's nose.
"He was telling me I couldn't shoot and stuff, but he was getting frustrated because I was holding onto his skin when I boxed him out. Then he hit me with the elbow. It was a big-time cheap shot.
"So grabbed him and told him he couldn't even throw a good elbow and the reason we lost the gold medal in the Olympics was because the team was full of a bunch of (wimps) like him."
Last season at New Mexico State, Aggie center Steve McGlothin, who's 6-8 and 230 pounds, was surprised to be bumped in the chest by Herdman, who told McGlothin to "shut up and sit down."
When told the confrontation looked a little like Opie on stilts picking a fight with Wilt Chamberlain, Herdman screamed, "Opie on stilts? Don't write that. Nobody ever compared me to Opie."
Freshman center Don May, Herdman's roommate, felt compelled to step in.
"Opie? Are you kidding? Jeff's our enforcer," May said. "If anything, he's Opie from Hell."
Irvine began the season with a 1-8 road record, but the Anteaters won their final three away games and finished the season 4-5 on the road in the Big West.
Last year's team, which upset Las Vegas and advanced to the conference tournament final, was 3-6 in conference road games.
"Right now, this is a better team than last year's because we have so many weapons," Mulligan said. "The key has been (Ricky) Butler and the willingness of (Kevin) Floyd and (Rod) Palmer to play the roles we've asked them to.
"Heck, we're even playing some defense now."
The Anteaters are clearly improved and they play their final four games at home, but only two games separate second place from eighth place in the Big West standings.
"We've gotten better, but if we let up, we're in trouble," he said. "We're in a good situation as long as we continue to work hard. I hope we don't get arrogant or cocky. Three of these teams just beat the hell out of us."
After tonight's game against Cal State Long Beach, Irvine plays host to New Mexico State (which beat the Anteaters 90-69 Jan. 26), Utah State (104-71 victors Jan. 16) and UC Santa Barbara (95-79 winners Jan. 7).
Who needs practice? Senior center Mike Doktorczyk was named Big West Conference player of the week after scoring 43 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in Irvine's victories at University of the Pacific and Fresno State. Doktorczyk, who leads the team in scoring (15.9) and rebounding (eight), is nursing a severe thigh bruise suffered in the first Cal State Fullerton game. He missed 16 days of practice before resuming activity Monday. Doktorczyk is second in the country in three-point field-goal percentage (57.8) behind teammate Jeff Herdman. . . . Irvine is No. 6 in the nation in team three-point shooting (45.8%). Herdman and Doktorczyk are a combined 77 of 130. Guard Rod Palmer has taken 132 three-pointers and made 58, which may not match up well with Herdman's and Doktorczyk's numbers but it's the same as shooting 66% on two-pointers. Guards Justin Anderson (10 of 28) and Kevin Floyd (6 of 20) are the other players who have made more than one three-pointer. If the Anteaters could keep the bench out of the act, they would be ranked higher. Reserves Brett Pagett, Brian McCloskey, Etop Udo-Ema and Troy Whiteto are a combined zero for 19.
Junior Brian Pajer, the top-ranked competitor in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke, will lead the Irvine men's and women's swimming teams into the Big West Conference meet today through Saturday at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach. Pajer won the conference championships in both breaststroke events in 1986 and 1987. He was redshirted last season. . . . Debbie Quam, a 5-foot-10 setter from Mater Dei High School, has signed a letter of intent to attend Irvine, Mike Puritz, women's volleyball coach, announced. Puritz also said that Lori Bonstein, a 5-11 middle blocker from MiraCosta College, will enroll at Irvine. . . . Freshman center Elgin Rogers is starting to get a little playing time and, well, at least he's getting involved. In his last 6 minutes of action, Rogers has committed six fouls.