Mernagh: Birch Makes Pitt Better
Khem Birch, according to one national expert on a podcast following Pitt’s loss to Long Beach State, isn’t ready.
How that expert would know that is up for debate, but when you connect the dots you can probably figure it out — someone he knows on the Pitt staff probably told the guy that. Birch had not gotten any kind of consistent burn up to that point so the opinion certainly wasn’t based on any performance critiques.
Following the loss to Long Beach I was of the opinion that Birch needed to play no matter what, along with J.J. Moore, if Pitt wanted to give themselves their best chance to win. Some folks echoed the feeling that Birch wasn’t ready while also stating that Moore “doesn’t get” whatever it is that allows a Pitt Panther to find success on the court. My opinion on Birch was an easy one — I’d watched the kid enough to know he could at least defend the rim and rebound and that was something that neither Dante Taylor nor Talib Zanna were giving Pitt in their first few games (and maybe getting him some consistent run would light a fire under Zanna and Taylor). I also felt that Birch was more talented offensively — he can face up and he has a nice stroke — than people were giving him credit for while also needing minutes to get in the flow of a game. Some of the most impressive plays I’ve seen Birch make in the past have come late in games, when his athleticism and IQ kick in automatically. My conclusion on Moore needing more minutes was almost as simple.
Moore can make plays once someone gets him the ball. Pitt doesn’t have any of those guys on the wing. Lamar Patterson is a very good facilitator who apparently “gets” what it takes to earn playing time — mainly, from what I hear, he kicks Moore’s butt everyday in practice. But Patterson is not a guy that can make the difficult look easy. He can’t catch at the three line, shot-fake, dribble and raise up like it’s an old habit. He can be the guy that delivers the pass to the guy at the three point line but not the guy that can figure out what to do fast enough when his open look is sealed off.
J.J. Moore can. JJ Moore’s a thoroughbred. Lamar Patterson’s an Ox. They both are very effective, just at different tasks. I was starting to wonder if we might never see Birch or Moore get a meaningful shot on the floor together this season.
Then Dante Taylor got a headache.
And Lamar Patterson did something wrong (not sure what) and got suspended for two games.
And Jamie Dixon started Khem Birch and JJ Moore.
The first half tonight is the hardest I’ve seen Pitt play this season.
The first half tonight is the crispest I’ve seen the Pitt offense operate this season.
The first half tonight is the first time I’ve seen a lineup with Birch and Moore together for extended time (I didn’t see the Penn game).
“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.” You listening Dante Taylor? Talib Zanna surely is because the Nigerian stud played his best basketball in over a year, grabbing 15 rebounds (7 offensive) and scoring 10 points on 5-8 shooting in 24 minutes.
J.J. Moore made a difference, even more than his numbers suggest, just by being on the court. He ran the floor. He defended and he was always a threat that the other team had to account for. Cameron Wright seized his opportunity and made the most of his 18 minutes by morphing into a Pitt version of Scottie Pippen, locking down Robert Morris star Velton Jones (1-14) while getting into the passing lanes. Wright shot 6-7 and gained confidence throughout.
All of these guys have one thing in common, they all ooze athleticism.
It starts with Birch and Moore, but their effect on the game impacts their teammates as well. Ashton Gibbs’ job is much easier. Ditto Tra Woodall’s, when those guys are on the floor.
Birch says the difference in his play comes down to one thing: “Consistent minutes is the main reason I’m producing the last few games,” he told me, “I’m getting a chance and trying to take advantage of it and help the team win.”
Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson are both likely to return Wednesday night against Duquesne.
Khem Birch and J.J. Moore will also be there.
It should be an interesting evening.