October 14, 2011

Birch brings defensive reputation to Pitt

Pittsburgh freshman forward Khem Birch opened plenty of eyes with his shot-blocking performance in the McDonald's All-American Game. Just imagine how much more he can accomplish now that he can see.

Birch began wearing contact lenses this summer and said he noticed the difference immediately. "I had blurry eyes," Birch said. "When I got tired, it would be more blurry. Now I can see better. It helps me a lot."

Pittsburgh officials decided Birch needed the contact lenses after putting him through a routine physical when he arrived on campus.

"I think it will help him in every way," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said, "not just on the court but also off the floor and in the classroom."

Birch's blurry vision didn't stop him from developing into the No. 9 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. Birch remains an unrefined offensive player, but he blocks shots as well as any freshman in the nation. He already had quite a reputation as a shot blocker even before his breakthrough performance in the McDonald's All-American Game.

Playing against most of the nation's other top recruits in the McDonald's game, Birch had 15 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. Nine of his 10 rebounds were on the offensive end.

"He caught people's attention because of his athleticism and the way he ran the court and blocked shots and rebounded," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

Birch had struggled in the practices leading up to the McDonald's game, leading to whispers that he didn't deserve his high ranking. Birch used his game performance as a response to that skepticism.

"My coach called me and said, 'During the practice, you're not really showing you want to be there,' " Birch said. "People were telling me I didn't want to be at the game. ... During the game, I had to prove myself."

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Birch is only the sixth McDonald's All-American to play for Pittsburgh. The select fraternity includes former Pitt greats Charles Smith and Jerome Lane, but that doesn't necessarily mean Birch will make that kind of an impact immediately. Pitt's most recent McDonald's All-American is Dante Taylor, a junior forward who has come off the bench in each of his first two years. Taylor averaged 5.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 15.0 minutes per game last season.

Birch could require a similar adjustment process. He remains a work in progress on the offensive end of the floor. And although Birch already is an outstanding shot blocker, he still must improve on other aspects of his defense.

"When some people say defense, they talk about blocked shots," Dixon said. "With coaches, I don't think that's the only aspect of defense. In my history, what I've seen, generally speaking, is there's always a huge adjustment to kids playing defense at the college level. You've got to guard the perimeter. You've got to guard ball screens. They're going to run plays, they're going to run sets. You're going against stronger kids.

"It's just a completely different game, and oftentimes they have to play on the perimeter more than they've ever played."

Joining the club
Khem Birch is the sixth McDonald's All-American to play for Pittsburgh, and only the second in the past two decades. Here's a rundown of all the former McDonald's All-Americans to play for the Panthers.
PlayerMcDonald's Year
Charles Smith1984
Jerome Lane1985
Bobby Martin1987
Brian Shorter1987
Dante Taylor2009
Khem Birch2011
Birch's track record suggests he could learn in a hurry. He grew up in Canada before heading to Winchendon (Mass.) Prep for the 2009-10 school year. Birch originally wondered how much he might struggle in his new surroundings. Either he exaggerated the quality of American basketball, or he underestimated his own potential. Birch averaged five blocks per game his during that 2009-10 season.

"I remember the first night in my room, I didn't think I was going to last," Birch said. "Then I realized how good I was."

Birch went from Winchendon to Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass. He averaged 18 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks per game last season while helping Notre Dame Prep advance to the final of the National Prep Championships. Yet again, Birch developed into more of a prospect than he ever expected.

"I didn't think I was going to be a five-star," Birch said. "I thought I'd be happy if I'm a three-star player."

His rapid progress resulted in a change of plans. Birch initially intended on spending one more year at prep school before beginning his college career in 2012. He instead decided to sign with Pittsburgh in time to play this season. By this point, he already had proved plenty at the high school level.

"He's an elite athlete and plays with a great motor," Meyer said. "He's a fantastic shot blocker and rebounder. He really runs the floor well. He's not that polished offensively, but he definitely has potential. As an offensive player, he's never going to be a guy who's a go-to scorer, but he can clean up messes, rebound and get putbacks. And he's going to be one of the first guys down the court in transition. He always brings it defensively."

Birch now must prove his elite high school skills can translate to the Big East. His road to Pittsburgh already has featured a few potholes. He signed with Pitt in part because of his strong relationship with assistant Pat Skerry, who left the Panthers in April to become Towson's coach. Birch considered seeking a release from his letter of intent, but he eventually decided to stick with Pittsburgh.

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"I'd known him since I was 15 years old, so it was hard," Birch said. "I was thinking about leaving, then I realized it's not him. It's the school. So I decided to stay."

Pittsburgh would love to see Birch make an immediate contribution as it attempts to replace starting center Gary McGhee and forward Gilbert Brown from the team that went 28-6, won the Big East regular-season title and earned a No. 1 seed in last season's NCAA tournament.

McGhee's departure leaves Pittsburgh without anyone who blocked more than 22 shots or averaged more than 4.9 rebounds per game last season.

"We don't have any expectations [for him]," Dixon said. "We just want him to play his hardest, have fun and continue to improve. That's what we ask of all our guys and what we expect of our guys."

But Birch does have expectations for himself. He'd like to score more than five points per game and average 10 rebounds per game in his freshman season.

He also should get quite a few blocks, particularly now that he has a better view of the basketball.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.


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