Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 | 12:32 a.m.
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On Friday, UNLV coach Dave Rice said the answer is now, as Birch will make the first start of his Rebels career Saturday night at 7 when UNLV (12-2) hosts Cal State Bakersfield (6-11) on Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
Rice said after Thursday’s 74-52 victory against Chicago State, which included Birch's first double-double as a Rebel, that Birch’s role would likely increase in the near future. On Friday Rice confirmed that that will include Birch replacing senior Quintrell Thomas in the starting lineup at center.
“I feel like it’s time to put him in the starting lineup and bring Quintrell and Carlos (Lopez-Sosa) off the bench,” Rice said. “I’m very confident in those two guys in those roles.”
Since becoming eligible for the Rebels’ game at UTEP, Birch has played the most minutes at center each of the last four games. So while the move should give him a few more minutes per game on the court with freshman Anthony Bennett — a pairing that’s been better than advertised thus far — it won’t necessarily mean more total minutes just yet.
Birch is averaging 21.8 minutes per game and 23.8 over the last four games. Rice said the move isn’t guaranteed to come with more court time — UNLV’s four regular starters average about 28 minutes per game — though it’s easy to imagine that Birch could continue to improve and play himself into more opportunities.
After Thursday’s game, Birch was asked about potentially starting games and took a very diplomatic approach, saying he didn’t think it would be fair for him to start ahead of guys who had come before him. That’s a nice thing for a teammate to say, but Birch has essentially been the starter for the last two weeks. This just makes it official.
In other lineup news, Mike Moser confirmed that he will miss his second straight game as he and Rice wait for the junior forward to get closer to 100 percent.
“I would love to play, but at the end of the day I feel like next week will be a little bit more important,” said Moser, referring to the beginning of Mountain West play on Wednesday at New Mexico.
Though he expects to play in that game, Moser wouldn’t guarantee that he’d be ready because he thought he would be good to go Saturday, too. Since suffering a dislocated right elbow on Dec. 9 at Cal, Moser has sped through his rehab. He was expected to miss at least four weeks yet he played 12 minutes at North Carolina, which was less than three weeks after the injury.
While Moser made rapid progress in those early weeks, he’s now having a hard time getting over the final hump. There haven’t been any setbacks, Moser said, but it’s still tender and the muscles around his elbow are too weak to do everything he wants to do, like follow through on shots.
“I could shoot 10 shots and pretty much all of them right now are different,” Moser said.
Watching the game from the bench gives Moser a different view of the game, one he said has been far more informative than he expected. Specifically, he sees the Rebels lacking the ability to grab a rebound and push in transition the way they really want to, the way he’s known for as a one-man fast break.
“I can’t wait to get on the court and solve some of those issues,” Moser said.
Until he does, UNLV won’t be able to get everyone it wants into the rotation to begin working on the inevitable kinks that will come with guys trying to figure out their roles. That process was supposed to begin after Birch became eligible, and while his development has gone well (see: new starter) Moser’s injury has delayed the Rebels. Considering how UNLV finished the final two months last season, though, maybe that’s OK.
“I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing,” Moser said. “Last year we peaked around this time and started going downhill. I don’t think we are even close to our peak yet.”