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.
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.