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Khem Birch's departure leaves UNLV without defensive anchor

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger
NCAA Basketball: San Diego State at UNLV
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Mar 5, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UNLV Runnin' Rebels forward Khem Birch (2) argues against a call during an NCAA men's basketball game against the San Diego State Aztecs at Thomas and Mack Center. The Aztecs won the game 73-64. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

UNLV's student section will need a new three-dimensional monster to use to distract opposing free throw shooters at the Thomas & Mack Center.

'Khem Kong' is now obsolete because it's namesake has played his last game for the Rebels. 

Khem Birch, UNLV's top big man, announced Thursday evening he is forgoing his final season of eligibility and entering the NBA draft. The 6-foot-9 junior would have had a better chance to garner first-round interest had he returned to school and improved his back-to-the-basket offense, but he could still be taken in the second round because of his ability to run the floor in transition, block shots and attack the offensive and defensive glass.

"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."

The loss of Birch is devastating for a UNLV program that has already seen leading scorer Bryce Dejean-Jones transfer to Iowa State and leading rebounder Roscoe Smith make a questionable decision to turn pro. Birch may have been more valuable and more well-rounded than either of those guys, having  averaged 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks as a junior.

UNLV adds a trio of top 50 freshmen and a pass-first point guard in San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin, but the Rebels now lack an experienced senior leader and a defensive anchor, both roles Birch could have easily filled. Instead the UNLV frontcourt will probably feature Chris Wood, who improved steadily over the course of his freshman season and four-star incoming center Goodluck Okonoboh.

Had Birch returned, the freshmen developed and Doolin capably emerged as the true point guard UNLV has lacked in recent years, the Rebels would have had a great chance to out-duel San Diego State for the Mountain West crown.

Realistically now the Aztecs will enter the season as clear league title favorites and the Rebels will be the most inexperienced but most talented member of the group of teams in pursuit.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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