Two weeks ago, UNLV was a program with no concrete ties to Pitt transfer and former McDonald's All-American forward Khem Birch. Dave Rice and his assistants were just trying to get a foot in the door.
On Monday, that door came off of its hinges.
Birch, a Montreal native who Rivals.com ranked as the No. 9 recruit in the 2011 senior class by Rivals.com, committed to UNLV, choosing the Rebels over Florida and a handful of others.
Birch visited UNLV over the weekend with his mother, Wendy Sparks, and AAU coach, Mike George. Now, he'll be packing his bags and moving to the desert in time for the Jan. 17 start of UNLV's spring semester. Birch can begin practicing with the team as soon as he's enrolled, and will be eligible to play as a redshirt sophomore following the fall 2012 semester—A situation similar to that of current UNLV guard Reggie Smith, who just became eligible last month after transferring in from Marquette.
Birch played in 10 games for Pitt before deciding to transfer in early December. He started his last six games under Jamie Dixon, and averaged 4.4 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes per contest. But Birch, at the time, said part of his reasoning for leaving was wanting to play his natural position—power forward—instead of center, which was where he was seeing action at the time for the Panthers.
He'll now join current high school seniors Katin Reinhardt, Daquan Cook and Demetris Morant as members of UNLV's 2012 signing class. Also technically in that group is USC transfer Bryce Jones, who will be eligible for UNLV at the start of the 2012-13 season. Rice and his staff also received scholarship release papers from other transfers, such as Illinois guard Crandall Head and Kentucky wing Stacey Poole. But if they were going to accept a mid-year transfer, they were dead-set on making sure it was someone who could bolster their front-court moving forward.
After the whirlwind of recent activity, Rice is, at the moment, left with one scholarship to give out before the start of next season. Several things could potentially happen to create more space, such as someone deciding to leave or Moser, a surging sophomore, deciding to test the NBA draft waters if his high-level play keeps up.
But, for now, here's a rundown of the top five candidates for that lone spot, and breakdowns of their current situations.
Bishop Gorman senior guard/forward
The consensus top player in the 2012 class is still considering UNLV along with several other blue-chip programs, such as Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA, among others. But the continued infusion of elite-level talent into the Rebels' program, combined with the hot start to this season, is believed to be keeping UNLV firmly in the mix. That's where they'll be all the way up until Muhammad makes a decision at some point in March or April. Both Shabazz and his father, Ron Holmes, are doing their due diligence of the program, attending several games and practices along this season. But, at the same time, don't be surprised if they sacrifice a potential official visit to UNLV in order to check out another possible suitor. Don't read into that too much, either, as they already know everything they need to about the hometown program. If UNLV lands him, it's likely a preseason Top-5 team entering the 2012-13 season. But if they don't, given additions like Jones and Reinhardt into the backcourt mix, it won't be nearly as devastating a blow as it might have been viewed as, say, six months ago.
Findlay Prep senior forward
Rivals.com's No. 7 prospect in the 2012 class reminds many in town of another potential Larry Johnson, not just because of his build (6-foot-7, 230 pounds), but also because of his versatility and sheer power around the rim. On Sunday, he released his final list of five schools on Twitter: Washington, Kentucky, Florida, UNLV and Oregon. UNLV may have grabbed a leg up on the competition on Monday, though, by landing Birch, as the two are close friends who both played for the same AAU program — CIA Bounce — when Birch was still in high school. If Bennett took the last spot, it would be tough to pin-point exactly where he'd fit into UNLV's rotation as a freshman, but he's talented enough that, one way or another, ample room would be made.
The Phelps School (Pa.) senior forward
Interesting case here. Pelle was the No. 23 overall prospect in the 2011 class, according to Rivals.com, and the Long Beach native signed with St. John's. After being ruled academically ineligible, Pelle re-opened his recruitment and enrolled at The Phelps School in order to get his grades in order. Several major programs are still after him, and before the Birch news, it was believed that UNLV was contending with San Diego State for the lead spot. At 6-foot-10, Pelle is incredibly athletic, raw and dripping with potential. But he and Birch are very similar players. Does UNLV have as much of a need for him now? Chances are, they'll still recruit him some, but Birch coming aboard could potentially have an effect against them.
Findlay Prep senior forward
Shepard remains one of the toughest top prospects to get a read on, but UNLV is still in the mix for the 6-foot-8 wing, who Rivals.com has as the 2012 class's No. 40 overall prospect. Like Muhammad and Bennett, Shepard won't be making a decision until March or April. Also, like Muhammad and Bennett, UNLV's recent success both on the floor and on the recruiting trail is helping to keep Shepard listening. For those who haven't seen Shepard play, both his frame and his game mirror those of Mike Moser. He'd fit in seamlessly on both ends of the floor within Dave Rice's system.
Findlay Prep senior forward/center
Willms, at one point, looked like a slam dunk to end up at UNLV. The 7-foot lefty from Ontario was a diamond-in-the-rough type of find for Rice and his staff, who spotted him through a connection to his AAU coach, Tyrone Lofton. Willms moved to Detroit to play at Consortium Prep last season, then transferred to Findlay Prep for his senior season. His development has been rapid of late, too. UNLV, San Diego State and Texas A&M are among the many schools in pursuit of Willms, with several high-major programs nibbling around the edges, too. Willms was close to making a decision back in October, but now will be signing in the spring period as he not only continues to weigh his options, but also continues to get his transcript straightened out, given his multiple transfers and time spent in both America and Canada. UNLV loves the way he potentially fits in their uptempo offensive system, as Willms runs the floor exceptionally well for someone of his size. His offensive game is still raw, but his shot-blocking, rebounding and athletic abilities are too tough to ignore. UNLV is still in the mix, but right now, it seems less likely that he ends up playing for Dave Rice than it did back in October. But, as always, anything can happen in recruiting. Keep Willms' name in mind.