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Senior year beneficial for Khem Birch, UNLV basketball


RENO - I hope Khem Birch listens to the right people.

I hope he takes his time and clearly examines his options and understands the NBA will not suddenly disappear in a year’s time.

I hope he returns to UNLV’s basketball team for a senior season.

With him, the Rebels could be special.

Without him, they could be talented and disjointed.

Sort of like this year.

Effort was not an issue in the least for the Rebels here Saturday night, but depleted sides often struggle maintaining execution for 40 minutes. UNLV did and fell to UNR 76-72 in a Mountain West regular-season finale that said much about the character Birch has in that 6-foot-9-inch lanky body.

The junior suffered a left hip flexor against San Diego State on Wednesday, barely practiced the next two days and was nowhere near 100 percent against UNR. But he still went out and put up 15 points, 22 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes. He grinded and gutted it out.

So did his team, for that matter.

There was a time midway through the first half, Birch on the bench wincing in pain, when UNLV coach Dave Rice looked to substitute his best player back into the game. He asked Birch if he could go. There was never a doubt.

UNLV was playing without leading scorer Bryce Dejean-Jones (suspended) and leading rebounder Roscoe Smith (concussion), meaning the term “all hands on deck,” defined the team Rice brought here.

“The (hip) hurt a lot,” said Birch, who made 5 of 13 shots. “I couldn’t jump off it and missed some easy shots early because of it. I wanted to win so bad. I brought my all. Every time I get on the court, I’m going to go hard and give 100 percent, no matter the situation or being injured or anything else.”

The truth: It is a coin flip today, a 50-50 call, on whether Birch will return next season or take his chances by applying for the NBA draft.

Pro scouts believe he should play another season of college ball, that he needs to get stronger in his lower body and absolutely continue to improve what is a limited offensive game today.

But while the Rebels will do their due diligence and provide Birch with all feedback from NBA personnel, young men in these times often have more people in their ears than Birch has career blocks.

People who are telling him to leave school.

People who probably aren’t looking at a big picture of this year’s draft class being incredibly deep and how much Birch could improve his stock with another season of college.

People who can’t see past the most recent box score.

“We have some good players coming in and other guys might stay next year,” Birch said. “We’re going to play a great schedule. But it could be my time to leave. You never know. I do want to elevate my game next year. I have to sit down with my parents and Coach Rice after the season and decide what I want to do.

“I think UNLV can be very good next year if I come back or if I don’t come back.”

It is an undecided stance that makes this true: As well as Rice and his staff have done recruiting one of the nation’s top classes for next year, their most important job is to now convince Birch to remain in school.

Forget the class of 2015.

Birch is by far their top recruit right now.

“We always want Khem to do what is best for Khem,” Rice said. “He is playing at a very high level. One thing about Khem is that he doesn’t rush to make those kinds of major decisions. He would be very valuable for us next year, but we’re always going to do what’s best for the player and his family.

“It’s a very fair statement to say we could be (special) with him. His experience combined with our young guys now and those coming in, there would be a great opportunity to build on what we did this season.”

I am for all for kids who are ready to leave early and get paid and begin their pro careers. If you’re guaranteed to be chosen in the lottery portion of the draft, you should almost always take advantage.

But it’s not even certain Birch would be selected in June — one leading mock draft site doesn’t include him over two rounds of picks —and his improvement since arriving at UNLV speaks to the large strides he could make in another season with the Rebels.

Some kids leave early to help their family financially, but second-round picks or free-agent signees are hardly taking home the millions of those in the lottery. Birch isn’t anywhere near that level yet.

He’s a thoughtful kid, a really nice young man.

I hope he thinks long and hard on this and comes back.

UNLV can do a lot worse than having Khem Birch as the face of their program next year.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @edgraney.