In between the Backyard Brawl and two basketball wins over Thanksgiving break, Pitt freshman Khem Birch started to break out this season - and not a moment too soon.
Thrust into the spotlight after Dante Taylor suffered from migranes, Birch has made the most of his opportunity thus far Sure, it's only been two games, but he's been impressive thus far.
I said throughout the offseason that while I thought Birch would make an impact, I thought it would mostly be on the defensive end and in rebounding. I still stick by that and two games against weak Division I teams aren't going to make me change that. Could he average eight to ten points a game? Maybe. But I have a hard time seeing him be an offensive star and doing what he did against Penn every single night in the Big East.
Birch has a while to go offensively. After the game against Penn, he even talked about his defense-first approach:
"I just play defense at the start of games," Birch told me after he registered 8 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks in 29 minutes. "The offense kind of just comes to me after I get in the flow, I just let it happen and focus on defending and going to the boards."
Pitt doesn't exactly need him to have big offensive games and I'd be perfectly content with him playing good defense and rebounding. What I've seen so far is that he can fit into the flow of a game, but I still have questions about how he'll stack up in Big East competition.
But in the two games he started, Birch has looked more impressive than Dante Taylor had ... which begs the obvious question:
So, Dante Taylor, have you ever heard of Wally Pipp?
Taylor, Pitt's starting center, missed Friday night's 78-58 win over Penn because of a migraine. In his place, ballyhooed freshman Khem Birch made his first start and left a mark.
In two plus seasons at Pitt, he's only had one game as impressive as Birch's 15 and 10 against Penn in his first career start - against Delaware State last season. Taylor simply hasn't shown the potential that Birch has already and it could be a matter of time before he's replaced in the starting lineup.
Birch's big game came after he got off to a bad start:
"I was really nervous at first, as you could see," he said. "I missed my layup and another layup. I was really nervous. But as the game went on, I got into a flow."
it's hard to predict exactly how far Birch will go this season, but one thing I expect him to do if he sticks around for a second season is to break Pitt's single-game blocked shots record. He nearly did that in the last game.