Rebels basketball:

After a year off, Birch excited to make his UNLV debut against UTEP

The Rebels’ defense gets a huge boost with the sophomore shot-blocker in the lineup

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch soars to the hoop during the dunk contest at the team’s First Look scrimmage Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV Runnin' Rebel Khem Birch

UNLV forward Khem Birch waits for play against San Diego State to resume during their game Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 at Viejas Arena in San Diego. The 10th ranked SDSU won the game 63-52. Launch slideshow »

EL PASO, Texas — Quintrell Thomas said there are only two guys he has played against who have forced him to worry about getting his shot blocked. The first is his former Kansas teammate Cole Aldrich, a 6-foot-11 reserve for the Houston Rockets who once had 10 blocks in an NCAA Tournament game.

The other is Khem Birch.

“He’s definitely a special player,” Thomas said of Birch, who will make his UNLV debut at 5 p.m. today when the 20th-ranked Rebels (8-1) play at UTEP (3-4) on CBS Sports Network.

Birch last played in a game Dec. 10, 2011, helping Pitt to a six-point victory against Oklahoma State at Madison Square Garden. Soon after that, Birch announced his intention to transfer and he landed at UNLV about a month later.

The Rebels got on Birch’s radar with last year’s November victory against then-No. 1 North Carolina. Birch saw that game and liked the idea of playing in coach Dave Rice’s system. His former AAU teammate and fellow Canadian Anthony Bennett had similar feelings, and now he’s a leading candidate for national freshman of the year.

Nobody’s expecting Birch to come in and make the same impact on offense. Not right away, at least. What the Rebels do expect is that Birch will anchor their post defense and allow his teammates to guard their men with more freedom.

“We’ll be able to take more risks,” Rice said. “Pressure the basketball more and deny more passes on the wing just because of the fact we’ve got a shot-blocker behind us who can clean things up. Even when he doesn’t block shots, just his presence, the fact that he’s in the game will make a difference defensively.”

Birch had six blocks in one game for Pitt; during his 10 games there, he averaged nearly two blocks per game. Rice said Thomas will start the game against the Miners, but he expects Birch to play maybe 15-20 minutes at center.

Birch’s court time will depend on a few factors, the most important being his conditioning. Birch runs the floor really well, especially for a guy who comes in at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, but there’s a difference between what he’s been doing in practice and game shape.

“Last year, I thought I was in shape,” Birch said, “and then I went in the game and played.”

It’s fair to expect some rust after so much time away from the court. No one knows exactly what that will mean as far his production goes, though. One possible scenario is that his timing will be off, perhaps resulting in fouls that in later games could be blocks.

Or maybe UTEP’s front line will immediately face the same problem Thomas and other Rebels such as freshman Savon Goodman have been dealing with every day in practice.

“You’re not going to just lay the ball up and everything’s going to be cool,” Goodman said. “He’s going to try to pin your shot against the backboard. Anybody coming into the lane and seeing him, they’re definitely going to have to re-route their shot.”

Whether he gets a ton of blocks or not, Birch is going to affect a lot of shots. That may be more valuable to UNLV because those should result in some missed shots that are often easier to rebound than blocks that may sail out of bounds.

Just two days after playing at UTEP, Birch will make his home debut in UNLV’s return to the Thomas & Mack Center after nearly three weeks away because of the National Finals Rodeo. The crowd for that game will include a not-so-surprise guest.

“My mom’s coming next Wednesday (against Northern Iowa),” Birch said. “She doesn’t think I know that.”

What she’s likely to see in addition to his defensive prowess is a vastly improved offensive player. Birch spends time after most practices working on his post moves one-on-one, usually with either assistant Stacey Augmon or Justin Hutson. Birch credits the coaching staff’s confidence in him as a big reason he has improved so much during his NCAA-mandated time off.

“I was really raw last year,” Birch said. “I didn’t even know what a drop step was.”

Now he knows that move and plenty more, and starting Monday he’ll get to try them out against other teams instead of just over and over in practice. It’s a moment he’s been waiting on for more than a year, one that has his nerves on edge and keeps him up at night.

“I’m so excited to play basketball again,” Birch said. “It’s what I love to do.”

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

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  1. Looking forward to your presence on the court, Khem. Just try not to foul too much.

  2. Go get 'em!

  3. Excited to see what Khem can do. He and AB in the lane together will should make it very difficult to get easy baskets against us. I am sure that UTEP will slow it down just like they did last year. Not a very good team this year but Floyd knows how to coach and I am sure that they will make it close. Runnin' Rebels!

  4. I'm excited to see Birch tonight. UTEP is a program on the rise, and I think they will hive the Rebels a few fits. However, I think the Rebels will win by around 10 points.

  5. Just wait until Moser returns.....WOW!

  6. @vegastony - With a healthy Moser, Bennett, and Birch the Rebels have the best frontcourt in college basketball.