New Orleans-born and bred, Dedric Willoughby, a red-hot shooter in a cold, cold town, still can't quite believe he found basketball heaven--and the scorer's role of a lifetime--in Ames, Iowa.
You could say he went from aimless to Ames.
"I had never left the city of New Orleans, and you know, I didn't want to leave," Willoughby said from the Iowa State basketball offices this week, as the Cyclones prepared for Thursday's Midwest Regional semifinal against UCLA in San Antonio.
"I still miss my red beans and rice, my jambalaya, and it's not real easy to get good crawfish here. And it's cold. Real cold. I had to really get used to that."
Willoughby had been recruited by Coach Tim Floyd when Floyd was at the University of New Orleans, redshirted his first season under Floyd and was a relatively productive sixth man his second year. Then his career and life spiraled out of
focus when Floyd left for Iowa State after the 1994 season.
His academics fell apart, so he left school. Then he enrolled at a junior college. Altogether, things were not looking bright for the 6-foot-3 guard.
Floyd thought Willoughby would fit in well at Iowa State, but chose not to ask Willoughby to join him because, Floyd said, "I recruited him with New Orleans money and on New Orleans time."
But Willoughby's mother, Darlene, stepped in, convincing both reluctant parties--her son and the coach--that Ames was where Willoughby ought to be.
"She got into my ear," Willoughby said. "Me and my mom respected Coach Floyd from the time he stepped into my home in high school. He didn't come across as phony. Once I got on court with him at the University of New Orleans, I knew I wanted to finish out my career with him.
"But it took my mom to totally make up my mind to go to Iowa State."
Floyd didn't argue with Darlene Willoughby, either, after politely rebuffing Dedric's first request in the spring of 1995.
"His mother gave me a call and told me that we would take him," Floyd said. "She reminded me that I had promised him I would get him a college degree and that coming with me was the way he could do that."
So Floyd fulfilled a promise and, to his self-described shock, watched Willoughby go from part-time player to legitimate star.
Suddenly, Floyd had someone to take the place of Fred Hoiberg, the just-graduated Cyclone legend
"I had no idea he would be as great a player as he is," Floyd said of Willoughby. "Here's a guy who played only 16 minutes a game for me in the Sun Belt Conference--and this is the Big 12."
Last year, his first season at Iowa State, Willoughby was the Cyclones' leading scorer in 24 of 33 games, averaged 20.5 points, made 88 three-point shots, and was an honorable mention All-American.
"I always had the talent, but it was also maturity," Willoughby said, explaining his sudden productivity. "I got a chance to sit out, learn the game a lot more, listen to what older players were telling me. I was strictly a jump shooter at the University of New Orleans. I've added more things. I'm taking it to the basket, getting to go to the free-throw line a lot."
Last season, Willoughby made 180 free throws, more than any other then-Big 8 player, except for teammate Kenny Pratt, attempted.
This year, slowed by hamstring, wrist and ankle injuries in his senior season, Willoughby has been less consistent, averaging 19.3 points, but just as explosive. He scored 36 points, and made nine three-pointers in Iowa State's close loss to Kansas on Feb. 9.
"Our defensive philosophy is that one man can't beat you," Kansas' Jacque Vaughn said after that game. "He almost did."
Willoughby prides himself almost as much for his defense against Jayhawk guard Jerod Haase in that game as for his scoring.
"Once I got on the roll, I felt as if nobody could really stop me," Willoughby said. "And at the same time, I was still playing defense. I limited my man to one field goal."
Willoughby's importance is not lost on the Bruins, who almost certainly will play Iowa State man to man and give Toby Bailey the assignment of shutting down Willoughby.
Bailey, whose leaping 6-5 frame has badgered Arizona's Damon Stoudamire, Stanford's Dion Cross, Duke's Trajan Langdon and, in the 1995 national semifinal game against Oklahoma State, Randy Rutherford, into poor performances, says he is singularly focused for Willoughby.
"I'm definitely going to have to pick my defense up to another level," Bailey said. "[UCLA Coach Steve Lavin] said he's a player like Rutherford.
"And when we played against Rutherford, I was a freshman, and I didn't score that many points [two], but I shut him down. I think he had like two points in the first half [and 15 overall]. . . . That's what I'm concentrating on now.
"They say that he's 'the man,' that they live and die by him kind of. So, I don't care how many points I score, I'm concentrating on shutting him down."
This season, limited in his ability to drive to the basket, Willoughby is making 45% of his three-point shots, 94 of 209.