In a striped sweater and track pants, Khem Birch sat on a chair on the sidelines in the Cox practice gym fidgeting for two hours on Tuesday afternoon.
The 6-foot-9 freshman Pitt transfer and former McDonald’s All-American was expected to practice for the first time as a Rebel on the first day of the UNLV spring semester. But having not gotten enrolled as a full-time student in time for Tuesday’s run, he was forced to sit and watch.
Birch has been physically cleared to begin participating in practices, and, according to Dave Rice, will likely begin practicing Thursday, when the team starts preparing for Saturday’s huge home clash with fellow Mountain West heavyweight New Mexico.
But whether he’s sitting out or in uniform, the Montreal native, who arrived in Las Vegas for good on Sunday night, couldn’t be happier.
“This is the perfect program,” Birch said. “Dave Rice is a good coach, it’s a nice system, nice campus, nice weather, nice city — Everything is just perfect here. I love UNLV.
“I feel happy, because this is my decision. I felt like when I was in high school, going to Pitt was 50-50. But this one was 100 percent my decision, so if I mess up, it’s all me.”
Birch played in 10 games at Pitt, starting six of them and averaging 4.4 points and five rebounds per contest before deciding to transfer in early December.
He said that, looking back on the situation in Jamie Dixon’s program, it was simply never a great fit.
“I didn’t gel with my teammates, and the system wasn’t right for me,” Birch said. “It wasn’t a run-and-gun system. It was a slowed-down pace system. They told me during recruiting that with their athletes, we’d be a fast-paced offense. In practice, we’d run all the time, don’t get me wrong, but during the games, it was just slow-paced.”
Birch said that when he decided to transfer, he wanted to look for programs that were sincere in their efforts to play fast-paced basketball. It then made sense that his three quick campus visits were to UNLV, Florida and New Mexico State, as all three rank in the Top 25 nationally in points per game this season.
He said that before this season, he didn’t know a whole lot about the UNLV program, but that he saw all he needed to on Nov. 26, when he was one of the millions who watched the Rebels upset then-No. 1 North Carolina at the Orleans Arena, 90-80.
It helped bridge a major gap between Birch and the UNLV staff, as the two sides had virtually no connection before he reached out to UNLV as a potential destination.
“I run, and they run — That’s what got me, right there,” Birch said. “When I opened my recruitment, I wanted to go to a fast-paced team, and right away, UNLV came to mind because I saw that game and how they ran.”
Now comes working himself into that system.
Birch admitted that he’ll likely be a bit out of shape when he starts practicing with his new team later this week, which is understandable. But his raw skills should help mask some of that fatigue.
One of the more explosive athletes in the 2011 recruiting class, Birch said he expects to be able to defend effectively right from go, which will make him a valuable member of UNLV’s scout team until he’s eligible following the fall 2012 semester as a redshirt sophomore.
On the offensive end, he’s a nice finisher in close when facing the rim, and has nice range with his shot out to around 18 feet.
He should also benefit greatly from working daily with UNLV assistant Stacey Augmon, as Birch’s build and skill set is similar to the one Augmon possessed when he starred for the Rebels two decades ago. Augmon’s presence on the current staff was also a major selling point for Birch.
“He’s a legend,” he said. “I was talking to my dad, he said ‘You know, UNLV used to be my favorite team in the 90s.’ I was like ‘Why?’ He said because of the Plastic Man. I said ‘Who’s the Plastic Man?’ He said ‘Stacey Augmon.’
“It’s crazy how everything comes together like that.”
Getting motivated to work hard and improve shouldn’t be an issue, either, as Birch already feels more comfortable at UNLV than he ever did at Pitt. He said he’s enjoying the relationships he’s already forming with Rice and his staff, pointing out that he likes that he can walk into their offices at any time of the day and simply talk with them.
And even though he has yet to practice with them, he said he’s already gelling well with his new teammates.
In other words — Everything appears to fit perfectly.
“I had no regrets about leaving Pitt,” he said. “I have no regrets coming here. So I’m just happy.”
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