Leading up to the start of the regular season, RunRebs will be profiling every significant player on the UNLV roster in a series we call "Meet the Rebels." Today's focus: sophomore center Khem Birch.
Look back at the past seven NCAA champions, and one thing they all shared in common was a center who could control the paint on the defensive end. Coaches often call it a "defensive presence" — and it's something a team has to have in order to contend for a title in today's game.
Enter Khem Birch. At 6-foot-10, he's the Rebels' best hope to become that sort of game-changing force under the basket. After transfering from Pitt mid-season last year, Birch will be eligible to play on Dec. 17.
What will he bring to the table when he finally takes the court?
As a former McDonald's All-American, Birch came out of high school with a great defensive reputation. He was one of the best shot-blockers in the country, and he's athletic enough to be a factor on offense. He didn't get to showcase those skills at his first college stop, but Birch says he's much improved from the player who averaged 4.4 points and 5.0 rebounds in his 10 games at Pitt.
"I feel like I'm way better in general," said Birch. "I've been working a lot in the past year, improving my post-up game, improving my face-up game. I feel like my strength is my defense, and I've been getting better on defense. I have good awareness on defense, so I think that's one way I'll be able to help the team."
Birch has looked the part in practice so far. He covers a lot of ground on the back end of the defense, and he's consistently challenged shots. He's come up with spectacular blocks on a regular basis.
Last year, UNLV defenders struggled to contain the pick and roll. Opposing ball-handlers got inside way too easily, and cutters were able to attack the rim freely. According to Synergy Sports, it was statistically the weakest area of the Rebels' defense.
Birch should help immediately on that front. He moves extremely well laterally, and his size should allow him to step out to challenge on the pick and roll, then recover to protect the basket. If he can help the Rebels improve significantly in that area, UNLV's defense could be fearsome.
Rice is confident that Birch will make an impact.
"He's a great defensive post presence," said Rice. "He's got great timing blocking shots, which gives a lot of confidence to our perimeter players to get out in the passing lanes. They can be more aggressive and not worry so much about getting beaten back door or getting beaten off the dribble, because they know Khem is back there to block shots and anchor the defense."
Birch's rebounding ability should also make the Rebels a stronger team. Forward Mike Moser led the team with 10.5 rebounds per game last year, but he was too often left to battle on the boards by himself. With the addition of Birch at midseason, as well as freshman power forward Anthony Bennett, the Rebels have the potential to be a dominant rebounding team.
Moser is looking forward to getting Birch on the court.
"I can't wait till December when he gets eligible," said Moser. "He's going to be such a force in the paint. I mean, he blocks everything. He's almost kind of Dwight Howard-esque with the way he blocks shots. It's so effortless. He's really going to deter guys from coming in the paint, and we're going to have opposing teams shooting jump shots because it's going to be hard to get in there between me, Khem and Anthony Bennett. He's going to make our front court really deep."
The stakes are high for Birch. If he steps onto the floor and provides an elite defensive presence, the Rebels could be one of the best teams in the country. Birch isn't shying away from those expectations.
"If we play up to our potential, I feel like we can go all the way," said Birch. "I have to concentrate on doing whatever I can to contribute. I have to do the little things. With the depth on this team, I don't think I can go out and get a double-double all the time, but I have to focus on the team rather than myself.
"If I do that, I think we can win it all."
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