Pitt freshman big man Birch finding his perch
Sidney Crosby wasn't the only Pittsburgh athlete from Canada who did some good things this week.
Five-star freshman Khem Birch put together the best game of his young career in No. 17 Pitt's 73-69 victory over La Salle on Tuesday night.
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Montreal native didn't overwhelm the stat sheet — four points, six rebounds, three blocked shots and one steal in 13 minutes — but he showed flashes of the ability that made him one of the most coveted recruits in program history.
"At first, I wasn't used to the system, but as practice went by, I got more confidence, and I know what to do out there," he said. "I'm going to make more plays and, hopefully, I can do that in other games."
Against La Salle, Birch played center for the first time this season. He switched from power forward this week and expects to remain at the post for the rest of the season.
Nasir Robinson's knee injury had predicated Birch's move, but Birch played only five minutes against Albany and four scoreless minutes in Pitt's loss to Long Beach State.
"With Nasir being out all that time, we needed another guy to play there," coach Jamie Dixon said. "Now he's got to get more comfortable playing (center). I think we've got guys now where they need to be."
Birch, ranked as a top-five power forward in the Class of 2011 coming out of Notre Dame (Mass.) Prep, likes the move.
"I don't care," he said, "as long as I get more minutes."
Birch had a game-high four offensive rebounds against La Salle, including a put-back off a Lamar Patterson miss and, 79 seconds later, a soaring dunk off a J.J. Moore miss.
The best of Birch was yet to come. With 13 minutes to play, La Salle freshman Jerrell Wright blocked Birch's layup attempt, knocking the Pitt freshman to the ground. As La Salle went the other way, Birch leapt up, raced down court and blocked Earl Pettis' shot from behind.
Birch also rejected a shot by 6-11, 240-pound La Salle center Steve Zack during a 9-0 second-half run that gave Pitt the lead for good.
"It's not easy for a freshman to come in right away and get things going," said Dante Taylor, a fellow McDonald's All-American. "It's going to take time. Tonight it was able to click for him, and I hope he can do that every game."
La Salle coach John Giannini said expecting Birch to dominate as a 19-year-old is unrealistic.
"He's obviously a very high level player, but it's hard for freshman," he said. "Everyone knows those (one-and-done) guys who are NBA superstars, but you're talking about one or two people on the planet. Khem Birch may be an all-time great player in college basketball and beyond, but it's a process for any freshman."