For whatever reason, the initial college decisions for power forward Khem Birch (Pittsburgh) and point guard Jamal Branch (Texas A&M) did not work out this year. Both former top-100 prospects from the 2011 class made the decision to leave their respective schools less than half of the way through their first year of college, and both announced where they are headed to for next year within minutes of each other on Monday evening.
2011 McDonald’s All-American game participant Khem Birch has elected to attend UNLV, primarily over Florida, while Jamal Branch made his intentions known to play at St. John’s, over Maryland and others.
While Birch is most certainly the more talented of the two players, the Red Storm have a clear and demonstrated need for a pure point guard, and for that reason Branch could be invaluable for multiple seasons. If both players fulfill academic obligations, they could be hitting the hardwood at mid-season next year, and be immediate impact players.
The Running Rebels were known as a haven for regarded transfers under former coach Lon Kruger, and it appears first year head coach Dave Rice is developing the same track record. He’s inherited a team with several transfers on it, including star sophomore Mike Moser, and currently has former USC talent Bryce Jones waiting in the wings for next year. Birch just adds to that talented crew.
Also, the addition of Birch will not hurt UNLV’s dogged pursuit of two top-10 national prospects in power forward Anthony Bennett and shooting guard Shabazz Muhammad, both of which play in their backyard at Sin City high schools, Findlay Prep (NV) and Bishop Gorman (NV), respectively. Bennett, like Birch, is a native of Canada, and the two players are friends. Muhammad plays for Rice’s brother, Grant Rice, at Bishop Gorman.
Given the no news and bad news emanating from St. John’s 2012 recruiting efforts to date, Branch is an important grab. The current roster lacks a pass-first point guard, of which Branch is one. He should play heavy minutes with his defensive-minded outlook upon gaining eligibility for the Johnnies. He could team with fellow Lone Star State native D’Angelo Harrison, a current freshman, to form a solid backcourt at St. John’s.
From here, St. John’s still needs a half-dozen or so players to sign for next year, while UNLV has what looks to be a sole scholarship slot on next year’s roster. The Red Storm still has heavy needs on the recruiting trail, while UNLV will focus on landing another McDonald’s All-American prize for next year, in either Bennett or Muhammad.