Smith, Birch bring Big East physicality to UNLV front line

Every basketball team needs a blue-collar worker, and junior forward Roscoe Smith is one of those guys for UNLV. Emotion, hustle and rebounding form the core of his identity.

Smith wants to do the defensive dirty work, but he can’t do it all. His partner in grime is junior big man Khem Birch, the other half the Rebels’ formidable frontcourt.

The 6-foot-8-inch Smith is the nation’s leading rebounder at 16.3 per game. The 6-9 Birch ranks as the nation’s second-best shot blocker at 5.5 per game.

“Do I consider us a one-two punch? I think we’re perfect together,” Smith said. “We’re best of friends on and off the court. I love playing with Khem and he loves playing with me. He has a lot of trust in me and I have a lot of trust in him.”

Smith, a transfer from Connecticut, and Birch, a transfer from Pittsburgh, know something about rough play from their days in the Big East Conference, which is not for the weak and feeble. The Big Ten also has a reputation as a basket-brawl league.

In a test of strength and toughness, UNLV (2-2) hosts Illinois (5-0) at 7:45 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center, and the Rebels are confident they can stand toe to toe with Smith and Birch down low.

“It’s going to be a physical game. The Big Ten is known for being physical,” Smith said. “We’re going to continue to play with high intensity.”

UNLV, in need of a quality nonconference win for its postseason resume, has had a week to prepare since losing an 86-80 decision to Arizona State. Smith grabbed 21 rebounds, and Birch totaled 14 rebounds and eight blocks in the loss.

Shooting woes have surfaced as the Rebels’ weakness, and coach Dave Rice is looking for his team to take on the identity of its tough front line while searching for offensive consistency.

“Roscoe and Khem are playing at a very high level right now. They bring it every night,” Rice said. “It starts with effort. We saw a lot of progress and a lot of good things. We feel like Roscoe and Khem and the guys coming off the bench can hold their own against anybody.

“Roscoe’s energy is infectious. He has a passion for rebounding. He feels like every single rebound and every loose ball is his. Khem knows his identity is on the defensive end is as a shot blocker and a rebounder. That is my goal for this group is for us to be a hard-playing, scrappy dive-on-the-floor type of team that plays with great emotion.”

All of those intangibles will be needed for UNLV to trade punches with the Fighting Illini, who have won each game by double digits while facing mostly soft opposition in Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Valparaiso, Bradley and Chicago State.

Illinois boasts skilled big men, 6-11 Nnanna Egwu and 6-7 Jon Ekey, and also employs a three-guard lineup with veterans Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice. Bertrand is the team’s top rebounder, and Rice, a Drake transfer, the top scorer at 15.6 points per game.

When the teams last met, in December 2011 at the United Center in Chicago, the Rebels beat down the Illini 64-48. But both sides are now led by different coaches and players.

Smith is emerging as UNLV’s go-to guy for energy on both ends, recording double figures in rebounds in all four games while scoring a team-high 14.3 points. He pulled down a career-high 22 rebounds in a victory over Omaha on Nov. 15 before nearly equaling that total against the Sun Devils.

“I’m not an individual accolades type of guy,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to do whatever it is to win ballgames. We’re 2-2, and we’re getting better.”

Rice put Smith on the floor for 40 minutes and Birch for 34 against Arizona State, but he plans to rotate more frontcourt players and try not to wear down his two starting big men in November.

Freshman forwards Jamal Aytes, Demetris Morant and Chris Wood are due to see more playing time.

“We know how good Khem and Roscoe are at getting rebounds, but I don’t want to play those guys 36 to 40 minutes a game,” Rice said. “I want to cultivate our bench, so you’ll see more guys playing in the frontcourt.”

Setting an example for the younger players, Smith said, is more important to him than being the nation’s leading rebounder.

“I definitely hold myself to a higher standard,” Smith said. “I’m a veteran guy. I consider myself a leader on this team.”

■ NOTES — Illinois has won its past 24 games in the month of November. … UNLV is 16-10 all time against teams currently in the Big Ten but 1-3 against the Illini, who beat the Rebels 73-62 in a 2011 NCAA Tournament opener in Tulsa, Okla. … The 2015 Maui Invitational field was announced and includes UNLV, Kansas, UCLA, Indiana, Vanderbilt, St. John’s, Wake Forest and Chaminade.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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