UNLV basketball:

Pittsburgh transfer forward Khem Birch ready for a fresh start at UNLV

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV trainer Dave Tomchek and recent transfer Khem Birch chat as the Rebels take on TCU Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 101-78.

The record books won’t show it, but UNLV fans may as well mark down a second ‘W’ next to the Rebels’ 90-80 victory against North Carolina on Nov. 26.

While they were playing that game at Orleans Arena, thousands of miles away in Pittsburgh, Khem Birch, a former McDonald’s All-American forward suddenly questioning his college decision, was falling in love.

“When I opened my recruitment, I wanted to go to a fast-paced team,” Birch said, “and right away UNLV came to mind because I saw that game and how they ran.”

On Tuesday, the first day of UNLV’s spring semester, Birch attended his first practice as a Rebel. He couldn’t participate because he hasn’t been fully enrolled yet, but coach Dave Rice said he expects Birch to be on the court Thursday.

Before the season began, Birch didn’t know that the Rebels were anything other than his dad’s favorite team back in the early ’90s. But that game showed him that if he decided to leave the Pittsburgh program, he had a possible destination in the desert.

After opting to transfer, it came down to UNLV or Florida.

“I feel happy, because this is my decision,” Birch said. “I felt like when I was in high school, going to Pitt was 50-50. But this one was 100 percent my decision, so if I mess up, it’s all me.”

Birch, a Montreal native, played high school basketball at Notre Dame Prep in Boston. When he committed to Pittsburgh, he was the highest-rated recruit (No. 9, according to Rivals) that Panthers coach Jamie Dixon had hauled in during his tenure.

He played in 10 games, including six starts, and averaged 4.4 points and five rebounds per game. But almost immediately, Birch was having second thoughts.

“They told me during recruiting that with athletes we’re going to be a fast-paced offense,” Birch said. “And in practice we ran all the time, don’t get me wrong, but during the games it was just slow-paced.”

Birch also said that he didn’t get along with his teammates, who weren’t welcoming to him. At practice Tuesday, it was just the opposite as the Rebels were joking around with their new teammate.

After an unpleasant start to his college career, Birch is really enjoying the little things like that moment with his teammates or hanging out in Rice’s office.

“I have no regrets about leaving Pitt,” Birch said. “I have no regrets coming here, so I’m just happy.”

There’s been a lot of speculation that Birch would recruit his former AAU teammate and current Findlay Prep forward Anthony Bennett to the Rebels. Birch said he wouldn’t pressure his friend into anything.

“I’ve talked to him a hundred million times about UNLV, but it’s up to him,” Birch said.

During his redshirt year, Birch said he would emphasize conditioning and bringing his offensive game up to the same level as his defense. He’s got the perfect guy to help him with that in assistant coach Stacey Augmon.

When Birch told his family that he was considering UNLV, his dad told him that the early-’90s Rebels were his favorite team.

“He said, ‘You know, because of Plastic Man,’ ” Birch said. “And I was like, ‘Who’s Plastic Man?’ … That’s crazy how everything just comes together like that.”

There’s also Larry Johnson, who was the last McDonald’s All-American at UNLV. That’s a legacy that Birch said inspires him.

“Hopefully,” Birch said, “we can bring the ’90s back to this program.”

On that night in November, Rebels fans felt like it was the glory days again. Adding Birch is just another reason to believe that that plan is coming to fruition.

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

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  1. This is awesome for UNLV and he will have an immediate impact once he can play. Also it would be great if we could get Bennett or Shabazz, but which one do you think will give us a better chance to get to the final four?

  2. Last McDonald's all American UNLV had play was Elmore Spwncer, played in 90-91 and 91-92. Technically speaking.

  3. Such a great pickup for UNLV and I hope Birch likes the desert over the Pitt snow. Glad to see he's already gelling with teammates too.

  4. Never a team player. Remember UNLV only a freshmen expected a ton of playing time at Pitt!

  5. Explain to me where in this article, Khem Birch states that he expected a ton of playing time while at Pitt?

    He said he was sold on the idea of a fast paced, run and gun team. Pittsburgh failed to deliver and to top it off he didn't get along with his team over there.

    We shouldn't write him off as trouble, because he didn't gel with his other team and was upset that the team he envisioned playing at was nothing like was promised.

    I'm excited to have Khem on the team. Him and Bryce on our scout team is just insane. They will push our guys to the limit and make us stronger overall.

  6. I hope the Rebels get Winston Shepard. He would give them size at the three, and he'd probably stay at least three years.