With one of the nation’s best recruiting classes on the way and a senior point guard who could be the “missing piece” for a program that lacked consistency at the position in 2013-14, UNLV is a program that will have high expectations in 2014-15. But even with that talent there’s a need for a defensive anchor, and the Runnin’ Rebels will need to find one as junior forward Khem Birch announced his decision to turn pro on Thursday.
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Birch, who averaged 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per game last season, was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Draft Express ranks Birch 61st on its list of the Top 100 draft prospects. He’s now the second UNLV player to make the decision to turn pro this offseason, with Roscoe Smith being the other, and that will impact Dave Rice’s team especially on the defensive end.
UNLV ranked third in the Mountain West in field goal percentage defense and second in three-point percentage defensive in 2013-14, and with Birch and Smith gone other front court players will need to step up.
Christian Wood, the lone returning member of the front court rotation, will be asked to be a leader for this group with freshmen Demetris Morant (redshirted in 2013-14) and Goodluck Okonoboh also being key figures. Oregon transfer Ben Carter will be able to help out in practice but that’s it, as he’ll have to sit per NCAA transfer rules.
UNLV will have athleticism in the front court next season but they won’t have much in the way of experience. The question now is whether or not that will keep the Runnin’ Rebels from getting back to the NCAA tournament after missing out in 2013-14.
Towards the end of the 2014 season, UNLV’s Jelan Kendrick, the Memphis transfer via junior college, began to earn more minutes during Runnin’ Rebels games. In a loss to Nevada, Kendrick played 33 minutes and scored 16 points, and in another loss (to San Diego State) two games later, Kendrick again used more than 30 minutes. The pedestal was set for a breakout senior season, one where Kendrick would likely receive more playing time due to transfers and players declaring for the NBA draft, but Kendrick may not be on the UNLV roster in 2015: the wing is set to graduate by summer’s end and is deciding whether to use his fifth season at the MWC program.
Coach Dave Rice has already lost Bryce Dejean-Jones (to transfer) and Roscoe Smith (to the NBA draft), and there is a chance that, along with Kendrick, Khem Birch might take his game beyond Las Vegas’ city limits in 2014-15.
The UNLV coaching staff is assuredly not done on the recruiting trail — there have been reports that Ryan Miller, replete with ties to the California recruiting scene, has been offered a spot on the UNLV staff — and even if Kendrick and Birch return, there could be a few new bodies who’ll join the team in the coming weeks.
After two inconsistent years spent at Connecticut, Roscoe Smith decided to transfer following his sophomore year, trekking to UNLV to continue his college career. Smith was eligible this past season, and after cementing a reputation as one of the nation’s best rebounders, Smith decided to leave Las Vegas and declare for the NBA draft.
Smith’s offense will need work at the next level, but as a forward who has shown dedication to grabbing each and every rebound that comes his way, Smith could be a valuable commodity. Smith’s offensive and defensive rebounding percentages both ranked with Ken Pomeroy’s top 60, and the junior was simply relentless on the glass. Teams will notice that skill and hustle, and while he continues to improve and develop his offense — his perimeter game is notably lacking, attempting just ten three-pointers last season — he could earn minutes (provided he makes a squad) because of his rebounding ability.
Even without Smith, coach Dave Rice isn’t lacking for frontcourt depth. It isn’t clear whether Khem Birch will return for the 2014-15 season, but Christian Wood will be joined by Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh in the paint, so the departure of Smith will actually open up some sorely needed minutes next fall.