The subtle exchanges between the two big men—a glance, a shout, a nod—give away their familiarity with each other. The UNLV basketball team, one of the most talented in the program’s history, is practicing inside the Mendenhall Center this October afternoon, but with eight newcomers on the roster, much of the action is disjointed as players learn their teammates’ tendencies and quirks. There is a notable exception: When 6-foot-8 freshman Anthony Bennett and 6-9 sophomore Khem Birch are placed on the same side for a 5-on-5 half-court drill, the interior motion becomes more cohesive—Birch grabbing an offensive rebound and kicking it out to Bennett for an open jumper on the right wing; Bennett passing through the lane to Birch, who finishes with a backboard-rattling dunk.
It is the type of sequence that has Rebel fans dreaming of a long-awaited return to the Final Four—and some college basketball experts thinking those dreams could come true. UNLV begins this season ranked nationally for the first time in two decades, with McDonald’s High School All-Americans Bennett and Birch joining returning star Mike Moser to form a frontcourt already being discussed as potentially the best in the country despite never having played together.
That UNLV landed Bennett or Birch, let alone both of them, is remarkable considering the players’ lofty credentials and the Rebels’ spotty track record attracting such stars (just seven previous McDonald’s All-Americans in the program’s history). A year ago, Bennett was rated one of the top 10 seniors in the country and projected as a long shot to join the Rebels despite playing for Henderson-based national high school powerhouse Findlay Prep. It was even more improbable that Birch, who was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh at this time last year, would end up a Rebel.
Yet, here they are, an unlikely tandem born and raised in the growing basketball incubator of Canada. This is the story of how they ended up in Southern Nevada—and what it means for the Rebels.
Bennett and Birch weren’t exactly neighbors up north—Birch is from Montreal, while Bennett grew up near Toronto. But in the close-knit world of Canadian hoops, they became fast friends after playing together at the 2010 Nike Global Challenge, a three-day tournament in which Birch was named the International MVP after a 25-point, 20-rebound game in a double-overtime victory over the USA East team.
Bennett came to the U.S. in 2009 to attend Mountain State Academy in West Virginia, then moved to Henderson the following year to play for Findlay Prep. He played basketball and soccer as an elementary schooler living in Toronto’s crime-riddled Jane and Finch neighborhood, but after his family moved to nearby Brampton, he didn’t play any sports again until he was 13 years old. By that time, he had grown to 6 feet, 2 inches tall, but still had the outside shot he’d developed earlier.
“He’s blessed with great athleticism, and great size and instincts,” UNLV coach Dave Rice says. “But at the same time, those things only take you so far if you’re not fundamentally sound. And because he was coached very well growing up, that just has enhanced his ability to potentially be a terrific player. He thinks and breathes and eats and sleeps basketball.”
Birch committed to Pittsburgh in September 2010, before his senior season at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., and played in 10 games with the Panthers last season, averaging 4.4 points and five rebounds before deciding to transfer in December. He had started six games, but his unhappiness with the team’s rigid style of play and some of his teammates’ attitude led him to rethink his decision.
“I was 17 years old, really young at the time,” Birch says. “And I knew I had made a mistake when the assistant coach [Pat Skerry, who had recruited Birch] left before the season [to become head coach at Towson State]. I didn’t want to be there, but I had no choice since I had signed a letter of intent.”
Birch’s decision to transfer brought a flurry of attacks from Pitt fans on Twitter. He turned for support to his friend Bennett, who advised Birch to ignore the online assault. Birch wasn’t even considering UNLV initially, but then he turned on the television on Nov. 26. That was the night the Rebels thumped top-ranked North Carolina, 90-80, at the Orleans Arena. Birch fell in love with the team’s fast-paced attack. And since Rice was already recruiting Bennett, the coach had established a relationship with the players’ AAU coach, giving UNLV the edge over Florida and New Mexico State.
Immediately after Birch arrived at UNLV, he began lobbying his countryman to join him on the Rebels’ roster. “I knew a couple of people here [at UNLV], but I didn’t know them very closely,” Bennett says. “As soon as Khem came, I thought, ‘OK, now I have someone here to talk to.’”
But at the beginning of May, Bennett remained the nation’s top unsigned player. He narrowed down his possibilities to UNLV, Kentucky and Oregon before making his decision that month. Now the countrymen have become as close off the court as they are on it, doing homework and spending much of their free time hanging out together.
“He made me comfortable here,” Birch says of Bennett. “Just knowing there was another Canadian here made me comfortable.”
Findlay Prep has won three national high school championships since the program began play in 2006. Along the way, it has helped develop some of Canada’s brightest young stars. Former Pilots Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph were both selected in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft following one season at the University of Texas, and Longhorns sophomore guard Myck Kabongo (another Findlay alum) is also likely to end up in the NBA. Add Montreal native Joel Anthony, a defensive force at UNLV in the mid-2000s who now plays for the NBA’s Miami Heat, and Southern Nevada has become a most unlikely beneficiary of this emigration of top Canadian talent.
“I think a connection certainly has developed,” Rice says. “And anytime a player from a particular geographical area goes to a particular school and has success, it’s just natural that other players are going to follow. But the biggest thing is that there’s great basketball being played in Canada now. I believe that you’ll see the Canadian national team become a major factor in the next several Olympics. There are a lot of very good young players, and we’re fortunate to have two of them on our roster.”
Toronto native Rowan Barrett played for the Canadian national basketball team for 15 years before retiring in 2008, and is now the program’s assistant general manager and executive vice president, part of a new regime headed by Los Angeles Lakers star Steve Nash, who became general manager in May. Bennett and Birch are just part of the country’s rising wave of young talent, which includes five Canadians selected in the last two NBA drafts and Ontario native Andrew Wiggins, who is rated the No. 1 prospect in this year’s recruiting class. There’s even more talent on the northern horizon, and some of it, Barrett says, may find its way to Las Vegas.
“With a couple of national championships [for Findlay Prep] with Thompson and Joseph, it opened up Vegas to many of the Canadian kids as a place they could go and maybe do the same,” he says. “And then as a result, once you get into that area, UNLV is obviously big there, and there becomes a connection. And kids are starting to understand that the NBA is there during the summer. It’s almost a convergence of different factors.”
Birch will be a spectator when UNLV opens its season against Northern Arizona at the Thomas & Mack Center on Nov. 12. Since he transferred mid-semester last year, he isn’t eligible to play until the Rebels’ Dec. 17 game at Texas-El Paso. But the high-flying forward is expected to have an immediate impact once he is allowed to suit up.
“He’s so unique in his ability to run the floor,” Rice says. “He’s as fast a player as we have on our team, frontcourt or backcourt. He can affect the game and make a difference without scoring a basket. He is very capable of scoring, but his ability to block shots, run the floor and just basically wreak havoc on offensive players—he’s a game-changer on the defensive end.”
In the meantime, Birch has been polishing his offensive moves and footwork with Rebel assistant coach Stacey Augmon, and has added about 15 pounds of muscle to his slender frame since last year. With the continued development of Birch’s half-court skills to complement his open-court abilities, UNLV’s frontcourt very well could meet its lofty projections. Moser, one of the nation’s top rebounders last season, will play more on the perimeter this season, but his high-energy game makes him a threat to opposing teams anywhere on the court. Bennett, potentially the most dangerous player on the team, can use his height and wide shoulders to clear out space in the paint, but he’s also versatile enough to stretch a defense past the 3-point line while also providing a strong rebounding presence.
“He’s a good 3-point shooter, so I know when to be in the post,” Birch says of his countryman. “It’s kinda hard to explain, but I know what he’s going to do. I know all his moves.”
That sixth sense is mutual—and Bennett can’t wait to share the floor with Birch.
“Khem’s not even playing until December, and we’re already good enough how we are,” Bennett says. “But as soon as he comes, it’s definitely going to be a step up from that. It’s going to be incredible.”