At age 12, when Khem Birch started playing basketball, he quickly realized he possessed a special skill.
“I’ve always been a good shot blocker,” he said. “My instincts have always been there.”
Birch has been one of the nation’s top shot blockers this season, and for the second consecutive season, UNLV’s 6-foot-9-inch junior forward was named the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the year.
“I worked hard for it. I expected it,” Birch said. “Next year, I want a three-peat.”
The league awards, voted on by the 11 coaches and a panel of 22 media members, were announced Monday. Birch was one of three Rebels to be honored, and he also was selected second team all-conference.
Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones was voted to the third team, and junior forward Roscoe Smith received honorable mention recognition.
Senior guard Xavier Thames of San Diego State, the regular-season champion, was picked as Player of the Year. The Aztecs, picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll, also had the Coach of the Year in Steve Fisher.
Thames was joined on the first team by UNR senior guard Deonte Burton, New Mexico seniors Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams, and Wyoming junior forward Larry Nance Jr.
Birch, who averaged 11.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in 18 league games, was not upset that voters rejected him as a first-team selection. But he said Boise State senior forward Ryan Watkins, another second-team pick, was worthy of the first team.
“I don’t know who picks these things, but I don’t really care,” Birch said. “I felt like Watkins deserved it more than I did. I’m mad that he didn’t get it more than me.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice stated Birch’s case instead.
“I think Khem understands his identity is on the defensive end, but at the same time, I thought he was very deserving of being first team,” Rice said. “There is nobody in the conference playing better than he is playing over the course of the last six or so games.”
The fourth-seeded Rebels (19-12, 10-8) open against fifth-seeded Wyoming (18-13, 9-9) at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals at the Thomas &Mack Center.
Birch totaled 15 points, a career-high 22 rebounds and four blocks in a 76-72 loss at UNR on Saturday. UNLV was missing two starters, Dejean-Jones and Smith, in its regular-season finale, but both players returned to practice Monday.
Dejean-Jones, who averaged 14.1 points in conference play, was reinstated from a four-day suspension by Rice after the two met in the morning.
“We had a very positive meeting. He was contrite,” said Rice, who suspended Dejean-Jones last week for conduct detrimental to the team.
Dejean-Jones explained that his anger over a loss to San Diego State on Wednesday caused him to blow off postgame handshakes and bolt early from the locker room and the arena.
“I just apologized for my actions,” Dejean-Jones said. “I don’t like losing, especially games like that where you really want to get back at a team for beating you and you lose again. We don’t need things like that happening to disrupt the locker room and disrupt the team.
“I’m very passionate about the game. I kind of lost control. I’m just coming back and trying to be a better person.”
Smith missed the past two games while recovering from a concussion suffered in a March 1 game at Air Force. Smith was cleared to return to practice Monday, but he did not go full speed.
“Everything is back to normal,” Smith said. “I know I’m playing Thursday for sure.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.