Birch or Graham? Graham or Birch? I would much rather not have to mention either one for at least six months. Instead they both decided to spout off this week. Well, since Birch went first, I’ll start with him.
Player transfers happen. Even mid-year ones involving high-level recruits. Every year there are a handful of them for whatever reason. It’s the first time it happened to Pitt so we may be reacting like it is something bizarre, but it really isn’t so far removed from reality. No matter how much some sportswriters decry it as a plague upon the game.
For the most part, these players find their new school. Make the choice and other than a few perfunctory interviews or press releases saying mainly that they just want to look forward to the future. Saying nice things about their new school and coach. Then they lower their head and are not heard from until they actually step out on the court in a year.
This works, because, they are athletes. They ultimately get judged by their performance on the court. Do well, and the transfer was reasonable and clearly was the right choice. Flop or fail to match the hype and you are a spoiled product of the AAU culture who can’t face his own failings.
Apparently the “advisors” for Khem Birch took a look at Jerry Sandusky’s interview with Bob Costas after being charged with multiple molestations and said, “Hey, that’s the kind of strategy we should follow!”
So, they decided that having Birch do a radio interview with Pittsburgh sports radio was a fine way to help with his image. Because that matters in Las Vegas and will make a difference in a market where he no longer goes to school or plays. Here’s the audio of the interview and the transcript of his interview on 93.7 FM.
Some of the key exchanges:
Gregg Giannotti: We want to hear from you what your determining factor was to leave Pittsburgh.
Khem Birch: I felt like it all started when Pat Skerry had left from what he had told me, and then when I got there and all of a sudden when I experienced the system.
No real shock here. When Skerry left Providence for the Pitt job, Birch went from being a dead lock Providence commit to a Pitt commit. When Skerry took that Towson job, Birch did waiver but ultimately stuck with Pitt. If for no other reason than the fact that he had already signed an NLI. Birch did not have that same level of knowing and trusting the coaches at Pitt.
PA: As far as your relationship with Jamie Dixon, I’ve never really heard many people say bad things about the coach.
KB: Oh no, no, no, me and Coach Dixon, we were okay. We didn’t really connect like that.
GG: When you say you didn’t connect, what do you mean by that?
KB: There was no relationship formed. Like, you know, I wouldn’t call him to tell him how I felt and all of that.
Word choice being key here. “Wouldn’t” as opposed to “couldn’t.” He didn’t communicate with Coach Dixon or any of the other assistants about his problems or concerns. If you want to argue that Dixon and the other coaches should have been more proactive at their end in checking on him, making sure things were okay. Finding out if he was having problems, probing and prodding, that’s a valid point. The thing is, we don’t actually know that they didn’t since Pitt isn’t going to say a word.
Again it goes back to his relationship with Skerry — who wooed and recruited him for at least two years. No one else on the staff had much time to get to know him. To recognize any signs that there were problems.
Birch reiterated his primary reason for transferring being that he didn’t like Pitt’s system.
PA: As far as the fit, you see UNLV and there was talk about maybe going to Kentucky; what is it about the way that Pitt plays basketball that doesn’t fit the way you play basketball?
KB: I felt like they slow the ball down too much. It’s not a fast-paced team.
GG: Did they say it was going to be a fast-paced team when you came in, and that kind of changed and that’s what turned you off a little bit?
KB: Yeah, when I was there, they said, ‘We don’t slow the ball down. We’re the third-leading scoring team in the Big East. We don’t slow the ball down.’ They said with all the athletes that were coming in that we were going to be more of an up-tempo team.
The choice for UNLV is interesting. There is no doubt they play more up-tempo. The thing is, Birch (and his advisers) apparently envision his own game as more evolved than it is. Of UNLV’s top-5 scorers, only one is not a perimeter/wing player. Mike Moser — who can shoot 3s and handle the ball. We’ve already seen that Birch is not a particularly strong ball handler and not a great shooter. He may be joining a team that runs, but Birch isn’t going to be getting his number called for scroing except for offensive rebounds and the occasional transition basket when he gets down court fast enough. While there is no doubt UNLV will tweak their game for Birch’s talent, it becomes a question of by how much — especially when he won’t be on the court with them until mid-year.
As for tempo. Not much I can say about that, other than tempo was slow. Pitt could score plenty because of the offense being rather efficient and shooting well early in the season. I think everyone from the coaches to the players envisioned playing a bit faster, but Pitt was not doing a good enough job taking care of the ball that way — even before Woodall got hurt.
The biggest deal were the comments he made about his former teammates. No surprise on the part where he said he only felt that he had a relationship with two of them. By all accounts he was shy at best, to stand-offish himself. And I’m guessing that his new teammates were a bit put-off and did not work hard to get close to him. But he characterized the whole thing a bit differently.
PA: What was it about the relationship that wasn’t working, as far as your teammate?
KB: I felt like, just coming in as an All-American, they didn’t try to embrace me or anything. I think some felt threatened.
GG: Like a little bit of jealousy?
KB: Yeah, kind of.
PA: Interesting. Dante Taylor, a fellow McDonald’s All-American, did you strike up a decent relationship with him?
KB: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I used to talk to Dante a lot about what was going on at Pitt and all of that.
GG: Who do you think felt threatened by you?
KB: I don’t want to name any names. I’m just saying like?you know what I mean? I’m just saying, I just felt like some people felt threatened.
Let the speculation run rampant. Or not. It’s amusing to see how tone deaf he is — like so many other 18-year olds. It’s all about him. The problem was his teammates didn’t embrace him. That he was not seen as bestowing his potential greatness on them and the basketball team.
But that was all small potatoes to the final accusation. That this Pitt team is selfish.
GG: Alright, final one for you Khem. What do you think is wrong? The team has struggled right now mightily; what do you think their biggest problem is?
KB: I don’t know. But when I was there, I remember when some people didn’t get what they wanted?during a half, if they didn’t score a certain amount of points, during halftime, it would be silence from those players. It wasn’t like they were happy. Even if we were winning, they would just get mad because they didn’t get what they wanted.
GG: You’re saying it was a little bit selfish in the lockerroom? It wasn’t a team concept?
KB: Yeah, it wasn’t really like a team sometimes, because some people just wanted what they wanted, and if they didn’t get it, they would just mope around.
Cue the taking notice of the irony.
Birch, though, left the team after 10 games because he didn’t get what he wanted, having complained earlier to CBSSports.com about playing the center position at Pitt. More playing time was available at center, and ultimately the starting job, whereas senior Nasir Robinson has been a three-year starter at power forward. The Panthers, like most college teams, rarely run plays designed to get their power forward the ball inside. Birch doesn’t have the skills to operate on the perimeter, like Indiana’s Christian Watford or Kentucky’s Terrence Jones.
Not surprisingly, the players didn’t want to say much other than to dispute the “selfish” accusation.
“We are definitely not selfish,” he [Ashton Gibbs] said after Monday night’s loss to Syracuse. “If that’s the opinion of his, that’s the opinion of his. He’s elsewhere right now, and I’m not really worried about him, and I wish him the best of luck.”
Coach Dixon also didn’t have much to say on the matter.
Dixon seemed stunned when told of Birch’s comments. For one thing, no one has ever accused his team of being selfish. People have said it can’t shoot at times over the years. They’ve said it can’t win big NCAA tournament games. But no one has talked of egos being a problem.
“I don’t see that at all,” Dixon said.
Dixon said he spoke often with Birch. “I always told him to let me know how he was feeling.”
Asked if he would handle Birch differently if he had a do-over, Dixon shook his head and said, “Based on what he told me, I don’t know that there could have been a different way.”
Sure there could have been a different way. Built the entire team around Birch for this year to showcase him. Made sure to run all the time regardless of the players. Perhaps even consulted with Birch’s advisers on strategy.