Rebels basketball:

Khem Birch watches UNLV dispatch Ottawa before it heads to his native Montreal

Birch said he was most interested to see how the Rebels performed without himself, Anthony Bennett or Roscoe Smith on the court

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Mike Moser, right, greets teammate Khem Birch before the Rebels’ game against the University of Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012. Birch, a Canadian citizen, was unable to take part in the Rebels’ Canada tour because of transfer rules.

UNLV vs. University of Ottawa

UNLV forward Carlos Lopez steals the shoe of teammate Khem Birch before the Rebels game against the University of Ottawa at Montpetit Hall in Ottawa, Ontario Sunday, August 19, 2012. Birch, a Montreal native, was unable to play in the game because of transfer rules. Launch slideshow »

OTTAWA — If you’re a UNLV basketball fan, there’s a fun game you can play during the Rebels’ games up in Canada. It’s sort of a fill in the blank format, and it goes like this: On any given play at any point in the game, how would it play out if UNLV coach Dave Rice had his full compliment of scholarship players?

If UNLV is struggling to defend 3-pointers, as it has in both of its victories so far, how would the defense look with a big lineup and junior transfer Roscoe Smith guarding a shooter on the perimeter? How would the rebounding numbers against Carleton — 37-35 for the Ravens, by the way — look with freshman Anthony Bennett out on the floor? And who’s going to be able to drive the lane against sophomore transfer Khem Birch’s seemingly endless wingspan?

Birch got a chance to play this game first hand Sunday as the Montreal native and his family made the drive over to Montpetit Hall for UNLV’s 89-76 victory against Ottawa.

“I want to see how they are without me, Anthony and Roscoe,” Birch said.

To compare UNLV’s situation to another game, think of it like this: Rice already has a full chess set, and just off to the side he has three very athletic rooks — two McDonald’s All-Americans and a former national champion in Smith — dying to get on the board.

If and when they do UNLV could be in for a special season, which is exactly why the excitement for this team is so high that the Twitter hashtag #UNLVmbb was the top trending topic in Las Vegas on Sunday during a mid-August exhibition game played in a dim, lightly-filled gym more than 2,500 miles away.

Birch showed up about 30 minutes before the game, enough time for teammates to say hello and for junior Carlos Lopez to steal one of his shoes right off his foot. Birch said he had watched part of the replay of Saturday’s 74-70 victory against Carleton, a team he’s long known as a power in Canada.

“I was kind of impressed that they won the game,” Birch said.

He had his eyes on UNLV’s participating freshman class, which had so-so days against the Ravens except for Katin Reinhardt, who led the team with 19 points. Exhibition or not, it’s not easy to go out and do that in your collegiate debut, Birch said.

“I remember being a freshman last year and being nervous about (my first game),” Birch said.

Birch wasn’t allowed to play in these games because he’s not eligible until after the fall semester. Smith is in a similar situation as he’s awaiting the official word from the NCAA on whether he’ll be eligible this year after transferring from Connecticut. Bennett, who is at home in Brampton, Ontario, which is near Toronto and about 5 and a half hours from Ottawa, is good to go in the fall, but the NCAA’s investigation into his academics took too long for him to be able to participate in the trip.

The fact that UNLV has two native Canadians on the roster and neither can play in the games north of the border is unfortunate, but Rice was still excited that Birch and his family were able to pay their own way for the short trek over to the game.

“To have it close enough that he could come to the game was a huge deal for us,” Rice said.

As the tour shifts to Montreal on Monday for games against Laval and McGill, Birch will transition from attendee to tour guide.

“I want to show them my culture and where I’m from,” Birch said.

As Birch leads guys around town or sits down for a Rebel dinner, you can bet that he or one of his teammates will bring up how the games in the books or the ones ahead would be different with Birch on the court. Or Bennett. Or Smith.

The speculation is what drives interest in this make-believe game, and when UNLV is winning even without those three pieces it’s hard not to fill in those August blanks with March dreams.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Taylor, Birch is still going to be a Freshman this year. He trasnfered at semester of his Freshman yr last year.

  2. While he did indeed transfer as a freshman last year, he burned up the second half of his freshman year, and then will burn up the first half of his sophomore year this year. Transfers from D I schools to D I schools have penalties. He was forced to sit out 1 full year while the scholarship clock keeps ticking.

    Some guys can red-shirt to preserve the year, but that's not possible when transferring in the middle of the year, as Birch played 1/2 a season at Pitt last year.

    He'll start the season as a sophomore, end it as a sophomore, and he'll be a junior next year.