Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The immediate reactions varied from “We’re screwed” to everything short of “We’re better off without him.”
When Khem Birch tweeted out his decision last Thursday to pass on a final season at UNLV and instead enter an NBA Draft that may come and go without calling his name, there was no shortage of knee-jerk opinions. That’s simply the way this process goes.
An early departure always impacts a team, although occasionally the effect is so small it can’t be felt outside the program. Of course, this wasn’t that.
Birch, a junior forward, is the two-time defending Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. He was likely going to be the preseason league player of the year and set the school’s career blocks record in the first game (he needed three).
So while the conversation has room for some variance, only a good gulp of Rebel Red Punch could convince you that losing Birch doesn’t lower this team’s ceiling. His absence creates more opportunity for younger players, sure, but some of those guys haven’t yet played a minute in college.
Coach Dave Rice often says, “There’s no substitute for experience.” That’s especially true when experience is in limited supply.
Whether Birch should have gone or stayed in school is a separate argument that nothing short of a flux capacitor could answer. We can’t explore two alternate realities, so even if Birch’s pro career turns out really great (which I’m rooting for) or very poorly, no one can say that one decision was absolutely better than the other. Too many variables.
However, we can address with at least a little certainty the effect it will have on the Rebels’ 2014-15 season. And it’s not great.
Part of that has to do with everything else the Rebels already lost. Including Savon Goodman’s banishment and Birch’s decision, the Rebels are down five players who had eligibility remaining. Jamal Aytes transferred to BYU, Bryce Dejean-Jones went to Iowa State and Roscoe Smith entered the draft earlier this month.
Add the loss of seniors Kevin Olekaibe and Carlos Lopez-Sosa, and you may start to wonder who exactly is still on the team. It’s not like the cupboard is bare, but Birch’s departure is the one for me that pushes the Rebels clearly past the tipping point.
Replacing the production already absent was going to be a challenge but one that seemed possible. Rashad Vaughn is touted as an elite scorer, Patrick McCaw’s strength is also shooting and Dwayne Morgan is an athletic wing who could end up being UNLV’s best two-way player.
Throw in Cody Doolin at point guard and Goodluck Okonoboh as Birch’s backup or in twin-towers lineups and the optimism blooms. I was willing to have that conversation.
Now? Now the Rebels need the majority of those hopes to come true, they need Christian Wood to develop even quicker than before and they may need some important minutes from redshirt freshman Demetris Morant.
UNLV was already trying to change its culture, from environment to coaching decisions to in-game tactics, without hitting the reset button. No one wants to start over, and Birch was their best way to accomplish that.
The guy who best balanced a strong work ethic with things like waving to an abusive road crowd would be the face of the program. He would be the one to get future players to play Runnin’ Rebel Basketball, whatever that actually means. Instead the keys will be immediately handed to the next generation, and if an overdependence on inexperience doesn’t worry you, then sit back for what will surely be a bumpy ride.
I’m not here to celebrate or condemn UNLV’s incoming players. There’s enough hyperbole attached to their names to keep fans seeing stars for days, so they don’t need help from me. I’m also not trying to discount or belittle their skills and possible contributions next season.
The point here is the word possible. Around UNLV the past few years, talent has most often been used as a synonym for potential. People have been sitting around waiting for that potential to transform into consistent performance.
UNLV has plenty of potential right now. Birch’s return would have been a much-needed anchor, and without it the Rebels are left to figure out how to get possibly five new starters to win together this season.