Could Khem Birch Represent the Leader UNLV Needs?Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 9th, 2013
Welcome to 2013, the year of the roster overhaul in college basketball. The most notable projects may be taking place in Lexington and Lawrence, but this year’s UNLV team looks quite different from the Runnin’ Rebels as we last saw them. This version of the Rebs got their first chance to show off the new look on Friday night. It wasn’t easy and was rarely pretty, but behind four starters making their UNLV debuts, the Rebels used a strong second half to dispatch Portland State, 67-48. With junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones sitting this one out due to a tight hamstring, Khem Birch was the lone UNLV returning starter for the opener. Birch is no different from the quartet of teammates (and Dejean-Jones for that matter) he took the floor with tonight in one regard: He began his college basketball journey at another school, in a place a world away from Las Vegas. But on nights like this, with a slew of new faces surrounding him and his prodigious talent on full display, it becomes painfully obvious that for this UNLV team to fully maximize its potential, Birch must also stand alone from his teammates.
While earning a #5 seed to the NCAA Tournament after a 25-win season is nothing to hang your head about, there was a definite sense of underachievement lingering in the desert last year. The overall talent level may not be quite as plentiful on this season’s team — there are no #1 picks hanging out on the wing — but Dave Rice’s squad isn’t starving for natural ability either; seven Runnin’ Rebels were top-100 recruits in their high school class. The goal, once again in Vegas, is to put that talent together in a maximally efficient manner.
To make that ambition reality, Dave Rice needs Khem Birch. What he doesn’t need is a replication of Birch’s contributions tonight — 13 points , 17 rebounds, and four blocks — every time the Rebels lace em’ up. I know – I’m sure he wouldn’t say no to the offer, but what Rice can actually ask Birch to reproduce is more of the intangible contributions he came up with tonight. Rice explained after the game that he thought the dominant second half effort was primarily due to an elevated intensity from his team; a pursuit undoubtedly spearheaded by Birch, who snatched 14 of his rebounds after halftime. Birch did it in every facet of the game; he brought the energy defensively, was active on the glass, and even led the break a handful of times – something he later claimed Rice has encouraged him to do. The Rebels will play many opponents – maybe 29 of them — more capable than the Vikings, but the point still matters: In a close second half game, it was Birch who stepped up and propelled his team through the storm.
More reason for hope that Birch is ready to lead on a consistent basis came in Rice’s postgame discourse, where he was effusive with praise for his center, offering, among other compliments, that “for someone who will play in the NBA someday, he’s the most unassuming guy I’ve ever been around.” There will be bigger tests for Birch and the Rebels in the days and weeks to come, but at least for a night, Khem Birch was a steadying force for a team in desperate need of one.