After Roscoe Smith made it public that he would be entering his name in the 2014 NBA Draft pool instead of returning to Las Vegas for his senior season, there was optimism among Rebel fans that defensive anchor Khem Birch would return for his final year at UNLV. That doesn't appear to be the case however.
While the loss of Birch is significant, the Runnin' Rebels will be reloading next season with one of the nation's best recruiting classes on the way and Cody Doolin, a senior transfer who will hope to provide some stability at the point guard position next season. UNLV will be putting a lot of talent on the floor regardless, so they still have to deal with high expectations in 2014-15 despite losing a player like Birch.
Forward Christian Wood will now certainly be expected to step into a larger role as the lone returning member of the front court rotation. Incoming freshman Goodluck Okonoboh is expected to step in and provide solid production the Rebels as well. So depending on how everything shapes out, Wood won't be asked to step into Birch's shoes necessarily, but he will most likely have a heavier workload compared to last season. Wood showed a lot of promise during his freshman year and should be able to build on that going forward.
Freshman Demetris Morant will also be a key factor next season after being redshirted in 2013-14. He's now going to step into a slightly larger role due to Birch's departure as well.
While UNLV may have some depth at the position, it's still tough to see a player like Birch leave the program. Averaging 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per game last season, he was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. Draft Express currently ranks Birch 61st on it's list of the Top 100 draft prospects.
"I loved playing here at UNLV for Coach Rice and with my teammates," Birch said in a school released statement. "After talking at length with my family, I have decided to pursue my professional career. It was a tough decision, one that I thought about for a very long time. I will finish my classes this semester and I will be a Runnin' Rebel for life."
It would've been great to hold onto Birch not only for his defensive presence, but his experience and leadership as well. It's something that the Runnin' Rebels are currently lacking heading into the 2014-15 season. After a disappointing 2013-14 campaign that saw them miss out on the NCAA Tournament, players will need to step up and the Rebels will need to come together as a collective unit if they plan on making any noise next season.