Pitt freshman big man Birch can swat 'em all
When Khem Birch blocked 12 shots in the past three games, no one in the Pitt locker room was the least bit surprised.
They have seen it for months in summer league games, pick-up games and practice. Nobody is safe from the lean, athletic, 6-foot-9, 220-pounder; six games into his college career, he appears to be one of the best shot blockers in school history.
"He just swats it out of there," forward Nasir Robinson said.
Robinson, a 22-year-old senior, called Birch's shot blocking ability "crazy." Robinson said every player on the roster, and even some team managers, have tasted rejection when they try to challenge the McDonald's All-American from Notre Dame (Mass.) Prep.
"He's got everybody at practice," Robinson said. "He got everybody but the coaches."
Birch can continue his rampage in the City Game when the No. 17 Panthers (5-1) play Duquesne (4-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Consol Energy Center. Coach Ron Everhart said his Dukes, who have a minus-10 rebounding margin, must do a better job against the bigger Panthers.
"It's a matter of will as opposed to a matter of skill," he said. "We have to develop a mindset that will allow us to do it better."
Birch's length, athleticism and instincts have him averaging 2.3 blocks despite playing sparingly in the first four games. He made back-to-back starts for junior Dante Taylor (headache), who was cleared to play and is expected to start against Duquesne. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Taylor and Birch will share time at center.
"Either way," he said, "they're both going to play."
Birch's six blocked shots in Pitt's 81-71 victory over Robert Morris on Sunday was one shy of the school record — accomplished 14 times, most recently by Gary McGhee against Duquesne two years ago.
"He's long," said RMU guard Velton Jones, rejected three times by Birch. "I know when I was getting in the lane, shots that I usually get up, he was blocking them. So that was a little different experience."
Eight Pitt players have blocked seven shots in a game, from Sam Clancy to Charles Smith. Birch seems certain to break the record. His average of 2.3 — in only 16.0 minutes per game — would be the highest at Pitt in 15 years.
Birch said he is working to control his blocks, so that Pitt can gain possession.
"Sometimes I'm so long, when I reach out, I hit it hard by accident," he said.
Either way, Birch is providing an invaluable last line of defense.
"(On Sunday), I got a foul," Robinson said. "Velton Jones was driving to the lane, and I fouled him. (Birch) told me not to foul him (because) he's got it. Let him block the shot. I was like, 'My bad, man, my bad.' I can save a foul, and he can get a block.''
Robinson spoke reverently about Birch's instincts. He blocked six shots in the McDonald's All-America game and averaged 6.0 as a senior at Notre Dame Prep.
"I think it's perfect timing," Robinson said. "His leaping ability and timing is crazy. He's been doing that since he got here in the summer."