Birch's arrival creates 'problem' for Rice

Dave Rice has a wonderful problem.

Former McDonald’s All-American and Pitt transfer Khem Birch is expected to make his debut Monday night at UTEP. Birch transferred midway through the 2011-12 season after averaging 4.4 points per game and 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in 10 games (15.0 minutes per game) with the Panthers.

But we didn’t learn a lot about the Canadian big man in that brief stint. He’ll certainly play more with UNLV because Rice needs him.

Mike Moser is sidelined after dislocating his elbow in a game at Cal earlier this month. So Birch arrives at a vulnerable time for the Runnin’ Rebels, who are talented enough to excel without Moser because Anthony Bennett (20.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg) has emerged as a national player of the year candidate.

Once Moser returns next month, however, placing the proven combo forward back into the rotation -- especially if Birch and Bennett are thriving together -- could be a challenge for Rice.

That’s a “problem,” however, most coaches desire. Still, Birch has a lot to prove before any grand assumptions can be made about his potential impact.

But there is a buzz in Las Vegas about Birch’s potential to boost a frontcourt that’s already one of the nation’s best (when healthy), according to the Las Vegas Sun’s Taylor Bern:

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.”

Well, that is -- possibly -- a problem for everyone else.

The bottom line is that Birch’s arrival is the most intriguing midyear addition in the country. And there’s minimal pressure on the sophomore because Bennett is playing so well, and Moser could return in the coming weeks, possibly in time for the squad’s conference opener at No. 16 New Mexico Jan. 9. It’s a great situation for the Runnin’ Rebels.

A wonderful problem.