UNLV in running for highly-touted Pitt transfer Khem Birch

Former McDonald's All-American also looking at Florida, Gonzaga, Xavier, Washington and New Mexico State

UNLV’s list of top targets for its two open scholarships in the class of 2012 right now is filled with elite names.

Adding to that group that includes Bishop Gorman’s Shabazz Muhammad, Findlay Prep’s Winston Shepard, Anthony Bennett and Matt Willms and former St. John’s signee Norvel Pelle now is a pretty significant name.

It’s Pitt transfer Khem Birch.

Early this week, UNLV coach Dave Rice and his staff received a release from Pitt granting them permission to speak to the former McDonald’s All-American, who decided to leave Jamie Dixon’s program earlier this month after only 10 games.

According to a report from CBSSports.com’s Jeff Goodman, Birch’s official list of potential suitors also includes Florida, Gonzaga, Washington, Xavier and New Mexico State.

“I want to play more (power forward),” Birch told Jeff Goodman. “That’s one of the main reasons I went to Pittsburgh in the first place. I know I don’t have the four-man skills yet, but I want to develop them. Coach Dixon is a great coach and a terrific person, I just didn’t think it was the best place for me.”

Birch, a 6-foot-9 Montreal native, averaged 4.4 points and five rebounds for the Panthers, but was seeing more time at center than power forward as Pitt tried to overcome a handful of early season injuries.

As a power forward, he’d be an ideal fit in Rice’s system at UNLV, where his athleticism and abilities to rebound and finish at the rim would all be featured heavily.

Plus, it fits a need for UNLV, who is hoping to further stock its front-court cupboard moving forward.

The Rebels also received releases from two other transfers — Kentucky wing Stacey Poole and Illinois guard Crandall Head. However, the staff’s interest in taking a perimeter transfer doesn’t appear to be heavy right now, as they are stocked with guards and wings moving forward after this season.

As of right now, the projected corps of big men for next season will include Mike Moser, Quintrell Thomas, Carlos Lopez and incoming freshman Demetris Morant. With his play so far this season, there is a lingering possibility that Moser could end up testing the NBA draft waters after just one year of eligibility at UNLV.

Pelle, Bennett and Willms are also targets in that department, but there can never be too many, as recruiting works in mysterious ways.

UNLV doesn’t have any direct connection to Birch, but the interest is definitely mutual. He came through the same AAU program in Canada — CIA Bounce — that Bennett played for, and was coached by Mike George, who had a good relationship with Lon Kruger’s staff. He coached former Rebels signee Grandy Glaze, who ended up getting out of his letter of intent after Kruger left for Oklahoma back in April.

What has attracted Birch to UNLV? The Rebels’ landing on the national radar with big wins over the likes of North Carolina and Illinois certainly helped. The uptempo playing style Rice has implemented successfully has been seen by many important eyes around the country, including Birch’s.

Birch told CBS that he hopes to start setting up visits in the coming weeks so that he can enroll somewhere in time for the spring semester and be eligible next December. Wherever he goes, he’d have 2.5 years of eligibility remaining following the conclusion of next year’s fall semester.

It is believed by some that Gonzaga could be the early front-runner for Birch, as he has a good relationship dating back to their AAU days with the Bulldogs’ Canadian star freshman point guard Kevin Pangos.