Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 | 2:13 p.m.
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Against San Diego State, Birch blocked five shots and altered more. Jamaal Franklin and Deshawn Stephens, especially, will be glad they don’t see Birch again this weekend.
As great an addition as Birch’s defense is, though, it doesn’t come without its risks. And right now that includes assuming Birch will clean up every mistake.
“We need to make sure we don’t get to where we’re overly aggressive and take undo chances assuming Khem will block it,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “The bottom line is we still have to guard the basketball, but it’s obviously very nice to have him back there.”
When UNLV (15-3, 2-1) plays at Colorado State (14-3, 1-1) on Saturday at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, Birch’s defensive prowess could once again come into play. The Rams have one of the best big men in the league — Colton Iverson — and guards like Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green who have the ability to beat defenders into the lane.
The Rams are led by coach Larry Eustachy, who’s in his first season in Fort Collins after previous stints at Iowa State and Southern Miss. Eustachy took over for Tim Miles, who left for Nebraska after five seasons.
Eustachy stepped into a ready-made league competitor. Last year, the Rams made the NCAA Tournament, and it was a seven-point victory at Moby Arena against UNLV that likely pushed them over the top and into the field of 68. This year, they return every key contributor from that 20-12 squad, plus Iverson, a senior transfer from Minnesota, and Daniel Bejarano, a sophomore transfer from Arizona.
Eustachy hasn’t made a lot of changes, though Rice noted the Rams have improved in an area that was already a strength.
“They’re a better rebounding team,” Rice said.
Forward Pierce Hornung was a rebounding force for the Rams last year, grabbing 18.4 percent of all available offensive rebounds, according to kenpom.com. That was the second-best mark in the country.
Now Hornung has Iverson working with him, and together they have Colorado State as arguably the best rebounding team in the country. The Rams rank third in the country in team offensive rebounding percentage and best in the nation in keeping their opponents away from offensive rebounds.
Rice often talks about toughness in terms of 50/50 balls or plays that you make when your opponent has nearly an equal chance of making the same play. In those terms, you could make a case for Colorado State as the toughest team in the country. They’re also just plain good.
“Their guards are really good moving without the ball and feeding the post, which is a huge deal for them,” Rice said.
Back to Birch. Obviously rebounding is going to be a very important part of this matchup. When Birch leaves his man to come over and help at the rim, which he did often when Franklin and Winston Shepard drove by defenders into the lane, it will leave Birch’s man unchecked and standing near the basket. If Birch blocks the shot, that may not matter, but if he alters it and forces a miss off the rim or backboard, then his guy will be in great position to grab an offensive rebound.
The Rebels can try to fix that by having the guard who’s man is taking the shot against Birch go and box out Birch’s man, but that’s obviously a disadvantage both because of the size disparity and the fact that UNLV’s guy would start the play behind the Colorado State player. It’s really hard to box someone out from behind them.
Winning 50/50 plays may dictate the outcome of this game more than any other this season. And fewer blocks could actually be better for Birch and the Rebels.