Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 | 7:50 p.m.
- About 3,000 tickets remain for Saturday’s home game against New Mexico
- UNLV’s Mike Moser named to The Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list
- UNLV falls two spots to No. 14 in Associated Press rankings
- UNLV’s poor shooting and lapse on defense combine for loss at San Diego State
- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
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.