By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Kavell Bigby-Williams has had enough. It’s time to fire the coach.
Not Will Wade, of course. He’s the reason Bigby-Williams and a host of other transfers are at LSU, in the first place, a critical and sizeable element in Wade’s first season on the job. The London native is, instead, a lifelong Arsenal fan, and while he appreciates everything legendary manager Arsene Wenger has done for the Gunners, Bigby-Williams is, reluctantly, “Wenger out.”
“I think it’s time for him to go,” Bigby-Williams says. “He’s been a great coach for what he’s done, but at this point, I think we need a change.”
Change is the order of the day at LSU, too, where Bigby-Williams joins three other transfers – two graduates, one junior college – on an overhauled roster that brings back just five scholarship players from last year’s 10-21 season. Wade spent the summer re-tooling his troops, replacing transfers Kieran Hayward and Branden Jenkins, redshirts Jalyn Patterson and Elbert Robinson – who remain at LSU but are no longer with the basketball program – and NBA-bound Antonio Blakeney with, in part, a top-20 freshman signing class.
But freshmen need seasoning, and Wade knew he’d need to bring in veterans to fill out the roster. Enter the elders: forward Jeremy Combs and guard Randy Onwuasor, productive, proven grad transfers from North Texas and Southern Utah, respectively; Daryl Edwards, a smooth-shooting, ultra-competitive JUCO combo guard from Northwest Florida State College; and Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-10 big by way of Oregon and a former junior college national player of the year who will have to sit one to play one in 2018-19.
In Combs and Onwuasor, LSU has multiple graduate transfers on its roster for the first time since the passage of NCAA Bylaw 14.6.1 in 2011, which grants immediate eligibility to graduates upon transfer to their new school, provided they enroll in graduate school. The rule is not without its critics, but Wade has had success with grad transfers at previous stops – he singled out Korey Billbury, who helped lead VCU to the NCAA Tournament in Wade’s first year as head coach – and describes the process of bringing them in as “unique.”
“A lot of those times those fifth-year kids are looking for someone who has a track record with other fifth-year kids because it’s a difficult situation,” he says. “You bring in a kid to a new team and they don’t know him. The kid is expecting to play. The kid was the best player on his other team typically and you’re bringing him in and he may not be your best guy.
“We tell them our plan and how we are going to get them better. How we see them playing and how they have to do it on a bigger stage than where they’ve been playing at other places. We are going to give you the stage, the plan, and the opportunity, but it’s up to you to take advantage of it.”
Onwuasor has had the most indirect journey to LSU of the bunch. A two-star prospect out of Inglewood, he signed with Tubby Smith and Texas Tech in 2013. He played 62 games in Lubbock, earning 14 starts as a sophomore but averaging just 3.5 points per game over two seasons, before transferring to Southern Utah. There, after his mandated year on the sidelines, he exploded for 23.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 82 percent from the line. He surpassed 30 points in eight games and 40 once, and at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he offers a thick, strong alternative to freshman point guard Tremont Waters, or a slashing, explosive scoring presence alongside him.
“It’s been a long journey,” Onwuasor says. “You have a lot of ups and downs in your career, and you just find a way to continue to push forward…I just felt like I had an opportunity to contribute to the team (at LSU). I definitely had opportunities to do that at other places, but I just felt like I wanted to be a part of something special here.”
Two years ago, Combs averaged 14.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, which ranked 18th nationally. An ankle injury restricted him to 13 games last season, and an August surgery will delay his return to the court for LSU, but when 100 percent, he’ll provide the Tigers much-needed post depth. He also has more familiarity than most grad transfers with his new program. He followed his head coach at North Texas, Tony Benford, who was Will Wade’s first hire to his LSU staff, to Baton Rouge.
“He was my head coach for three years,” Combs says of Benford. “We’ve got a lot of memories and we’ve been through a lot of stuff together. It’s always good to have a familiar face when you go to a new place.”
Edwards – like Onwuasor, a California native – took a more traditional path to LSU, spending two years at the junior college level before moving to Baton Rouge. The Fresno native was well-recruited out of high school, with offers from Cincinnati, Villanova, and Tulane, among others, but instead headed to Northwest Florida State in the Panhandle to tighten up his academics before embarking on D1 basketball. His sophomore season saw him improve from 33 percent shooting from beyond the arc to 47 percent, and he feels he’s already improved that much more since arriving at LSU.
“From the summer to now, more work than I ever did in my life,” he laughs. “I feel a lot more athletic, I feel like I have more wind, I feel like I can knock shots down consistently at the end of practice. You would never know, but I feel like right now, my biggest asset would be a tough dude that can score the ball and play some defense.”
Bigby-Williams took a similar path as Edwards last year, joining Oregon after being named the 2015-16 Spalding NJCAA Division I Player of the Year at Gillette (Wyo.) College, where he averaged 16.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 5.6 blocks per game. He won’t see the floor until next season, but that doesn’t mean Bigby-Williams won’t be counted on to help LSU in 2017-18. Wade says he’s been effective both as a sub for Duop Reath in practice, when the senior big needs a breather, and as a foil to Reath, too.
“Kavell is a presence down there,” Wade says. “He is 6’ 11”, he can block shots, he runs the rim, he is developing some offensive skill, and he has worked really hard. He is taking advantage of his redshirt year. He is always calling me to get in the gym with him or being there early or staying late after practice to work with him. He has been diligently working and he challenges Duop. I think the more Duop is challenged, the more prepared he will be when we open the season.”
Meanwhile, Bigby-Williams is using the off-year to refine his game. He played in 37 games for the Ducks on their way to the Final Four but averaged just 3.0 points and 2.8 rebounds while blocking 28 shots. He knows there’s work to be done between now and his LSU debut in 2018-19.
“With the coaching staff changing, I know Coach’s track record at VCU,” he says. “He was a successful coach over there. I knew I was coming to a program where there was a good coach. And I knew I could get better here.”