Khem Birch preparing for a potentially major impact in 2012-13

Pitt transfer could be a force in many ways for UNLV following the conclusion of the fall semester

Last month, Dave Rice sat in the Superdome in New Orleans taking in the Final Four, marveling as he saw the driving force behind Kentucky’s national title run in person.

Sure, the Wildcats will likely see six members of that team — five of whom are underclassmen — selected in June’s NBA draft. But without 6-foot-11 star anchor Anthony Davis, 37 wins and the program’s eighth national crown wouldn’t have been possible.

Davis made great strides on the offensive end in his one year on campus in Lexington, but his bread and butter was the ability to change a game as a rebounder and shot-blocker. He averaged 10.4 rebounds per game, and his 4.6 blocks per outing led the nation.

As Rice enters his second season at the helm at UNLV, he doesn’t have an Anthony Davis clone waiting in the wings. But he does have Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound redshirt sophomore who he believes could potentially have a similar effect for the Rebels in the 2012-13 campaign.

“We all watched Kentucky play, and one of the many things that made Kentucky so good was their ability to guard the basket, and Khem gives us that element,” Rice said. “From a psychological standpoint, when a team knows that if they beat you on dribble penetration, there’s going to be a guy there who’s capable of protecting the rim and guarding the basket, it’s a huge deal.”

Birch, a former McDonald’s All-American and Pitt transfer, will be eligible for the Rebels following the conclusion of the upcoming fall semester. And since arriving in Las Vegas back in February, the buzz surrounding the Montreal native has only grown.

The on-court reasoning for Birch departing Pitt back in December revolved around his desire to no longer play center in coach Jamie Dixon’s half-court-oriented offense. Too versatile to play primarily with his back to the basket, and unhappy with a decision to attend Pitt that he previously said wasn’t entirely his, he shocked the college hoops community by leaving after appearing in only 10 games. He’d started his last six games for the Panthers, averaging five points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per contest.

The second time around as a desired recruit, Birch took charge in the process, ultimately choosing UNLV over Florida by going with his gut.

“I remembered leaving the visit, knowing this was the perfect place,” he recalled. “I had no worries because I knew this was my decision.

“It’s going to be a long offseason for me, but I feel I’m ready, and I’m just going to play my game. I told coach (Rice) that I don’t mind playing (center) here. It’s different. You can face up, you can shoot a little bit, you can post up some. If I’m playing (center), at least I’m playing uptempo. It gives me a chance at some mismatches.”

Learning how to specifically exploit some of those mismatches is where plenty of his focus will be placed this summer.

Right after Birch arrived in Las Vegas, he began working regularly with the UNLV assistants in an individual capacity, whether it was after practices or on the Thomas & Mack Center floor hours before home games. On the offensive end is where he needed the most work.

The abilities to score both from the mid-range and with his back to the basket are there, but Birch said that the key for him now is learning how to do so with more strength and conviction, while also figuring out how to show more patience.

“I think he likes the idea of every time he gets a defensive rebound, he’s a trailer and he plays out in the open floor,” Rice said. “I think he likes the idea of all the skill development he’s able to do with coach (Stacey) Augmon and our staff. And he’s a very hard worker.”

Birch will spend the entire summer working out on campus, not returning home to Montreal until UNLV takes its international summer tour through Canada in late August — a trip that will include multiple exhibition games he can’t participate in, but he’ll still be allowed to travel with the team and practice.

Up until that trip — and likely beyond — he’ll be Augmon’s project.

As an NBA assistant, Augmon was taught the tricks of the trade from one of the best — former UNLV assistant and long-time NBA skill development guru Tim Grgurich, who still lingers around UNLV practices here and there. Augmon mastered the art of using a long frame to his benefit both in the post and on the perimeter both as a UNLV standout in the late 1980s and early 90s and as a 15-year NBA veteran.

But while developing on the offensive end is Birch’s top priority, he already feels at home everywhere else.

As a rebounder and shot-blocker, he quickly came out of his shell early on as a member of UNLV’s scout team during the spring semester. At first, admittedly a bit timid in his new surroundings, Birch waited until he felt at ease before showing some aggression.

He shouldn’t have a problem doing so once he becomes eligible in December, and should immediately add plenty to a front line that was inconsistent in both realms last season.

UNLV led all Mountain West teams in blocks per game with 4.8, but plenty of them came on help from its perimeter players. And while they ranked second in the league in rebounds per game (37.7), they were last in rebounds allowed (34.8). Outside of forward Mike Moser, who averaged a double-double as a sophomore, no one could consistently control the glass, and offensive rebounds allowed down the stretch run of the season contributed heavily to UNLV dropping six of its last 11 games. With Moser moving outside to play primarily at the small forward post as a junior, there’s somewhat of a void to fill on the interior.

Birch feels he’s ready to play the role of defensive safety valve.

“One thing that comes very naturally for Khem is his timing on the weak side, going across the lane and blocking shots, being a force in terms of defensive presence,” Rice said. “That was very obvious in practice, especially as he got into good shape.”

Added Birch: “Just coming from the help side, I feel like the guards can always let their guy come to me, I can block a shot and start a fast break. That’s how I feel I can contribute.”

Off of the court, Birch has adapted, too.

He said that engaging fans approaching him on the street, at practice and at the Mack before games helped him get comfortable quickly. Meanwhile, he soaked in the vibrant city life, exploring on The Strip as often as he could in his first couple of months in town.

Even though he has yet to play a game at UNLV, Birch thinks the experience he’s already had in Las Vegas is one that others from the fledgling hoops hotbed of Canada would enjoy as well.

That’s Rice’s hope, too. Aside from the ongoing recruitment of Toronto native and Findlay Prep senior Anthony Bennett — the top unsigned prospect remaining in the 2012 class — there will likely be several top prep talents looking to come play college ball in the coming years.

Several could have the potential to change a program like Davis did at Kentucky — and how Birch potentially could at UNLV.

“One of the things in recruiting is we all pick various geographical areas and try to recruit players from that area,” said Rice, who on top of recruiting heavily in Las Vegas and California is trying to make inroads early in his tenure along the East Coast. “It’s very important to get a player like Khem to come here and then to succeed.”

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Gary Sallee drops into a chair across from me in the otherwise empty Nevada Department of Transportation training room and, in his soft Kentucky drawl, tells me a little about his journey as a U.S. Air Force Reservist. Sallee is a master sergeant assigned to the 555th Red Horse Squadron, a rapid-deployment, heavy-construction unit based at Nellis Air Force Base. When he returned from his 2007 deployment to Forward Operating Base Hammer, roughly 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, his former employer, a construction contractor, told him, “Just call back when you get off orders.”