In their quest to persuade highly touted Shabazz Muhammad to sign with his hometown school this spring, UNLV fans have showed up in droves at his games, created a faux Nike commercial in his honor and even offered to name their first-born son after him.
What could have a far greater impact, however, is the addition the Rebels made to their 2012-13 roster on Monday night.
UNLV out-dueled Florida for promising transfer Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9 former five-star recruit who opted to leave Pittsburgh three weeks ago. The potential frontcourt pairing of Birch and forward Mike Moser next winter should ensure UNLV remains a fixture in the top 25 with or without Muhammad and assuage any fears the 6-6 wing has about not being able to contend for a Final Four berth at his hometown school.
Even though Birch lacked prior ties to UNLV or coach Dave Rice, the Rebels' up-tempo system and track record of success with transfers was enough to persuade Birch to visit last week and commit on Monday. Once he becomes eligible in mid-December, he will try to duplicate the success high-major transfers Moser, Chace Stanback and Reggie Smith have each enjoyed at UNLV.
Birch's face-up offense and back-to-the-basket moves looked very raw in his brief stint at Pittsburgh, but he will immediately help UNLV with his ability to block shots, rebound and run the floor in transition.
He started his final six games for the Panthers, shooting 57 percent from the field and averaging 4.4 point, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots per game. He has said he wants to play power forward instead of center at his next stop, though it would seem likely he'd play some of both at UNLV assuming Moser returns for his junior season.
Add Birch to a frontcourt that could still include Moser and returning centers Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez, and UNLV would have size, depth and athleticism inside even most power conference schools can't match. The backcourt could be explosive too with USC transfer Bryce Jones and top recruit Kaitin Reinhardt joining returners Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Smith.
Would the allure of playing at home and joining that talented roster be enough to dissuade Muhammad from taking his talents to Kentucky, Duke, UCLA or one of his other finalists? It's probably still a long shot, but the Rebels have other options for their final vacant scholarship if the Bishop Gorman star decides this spring that he wants to play somewhere besides his hometown.
Elite 6-foot-7 Class of 2012 forward Anthony Bennett lists UNLV among his five finalists along with Washington, Kentucky, Florida and Oregon. The Rebels are also reportedly still in the mix for Bennett's Findlay Prep teammate Winston Sheppard and former St. John's signee Norvel Pelle.
Any of those guys would be good additions. But pair Muhammad with the frontcourt tandem of Birch and Moser, and UNLV could have its best team since the Jerry Tarkanian era two decades ago.
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