PHILADELPHIA – He may not be as physically imposing as DeJuan Blair or Gary McGhee. He hasn’t been part of a team that has made a run in the NCAA tournament. He hasn’t even completed a full semester of college, yet.
But Friday night, a breakout 15-point, 10-rebound performance from freshman big man Khem Birch helped No. 16 Pittsburgh stave off a pesky Penn team, 78-58, in the Philly Hoop Group Classic at the Palestra.
With starter Dante Taylor sitting out with migraines, Birch got his first career start and took advantage.
After missing a layup and turning the ball over in the early minutes, he came back with a blocked shot that sparked a strong performance, on the way to his first career double-double. Birch was efficient on the evening, as well, finishing 6/8 from the field.
“As the game went on, I got into a flow,” Birch said after the game.
He will need to stay in that flow and continue to exert himself in the Pitt frontcourt if the Panthers want to compete at the top of the Big East.
Pittsburgh was picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason media poll, with frontcourt-heavy Syracuse and Connecticut leading the pack.
Birch, a 6’9” Montreal native, added two blocks to help solidify the Panthers’ post defense.
“He’s got a good feel, so there’s things that you can grow with and build with,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said of Birch. “That’s something you can’t teach.”
The Panthers were upset by mid-major Long Beach State at home on November 16th, giving up a whopping 86 points in a 10-point loss.
Birch played just four minutes in that game.
He comes to the Pittsburgh program with accolades to show: a top 15 recruit in the country, a Jordan Brand All-American, and a McDonald’s All-American in his senior season.
With Taylor suffering from the aforementioned headaches and sophomore forward Talib Zanna going down with an as-of-yet undetermined knee injury in the second half of Friday’s game against Penn, Birch’s importance is being amplified.
He is a well-developed shotblocker with long arms and, with a front line that is not only depleted, but underachieving, Birch’s ability to blossom by the time Big East play rolls around will help to shore up the Panther interior.
Prior to Friday night’s game with Pitt, Birch had averaged just 10 minutes per game. With Taylor and guard/forward Lamar Patterson out against Penn, he played 28.
If Taylor and Birch develop, either in combination or as one and two on the depth chart, the Panthers will ease the load on guards Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall.
Gibbs had 16 points, including 4/6 from three-point range, to lead Pittsburgh in the win over Penn. Forward Nasir Robinson chipped in with 14 points and sophomore JJ Moore added 12.
Birch still needs to add muscle and has yet to be tested against Big East-sized forwards, but, if Friday’s performance is any indication, the potential is there for a special player to emerge.