Pitt freshman Birch hoping to live up to hype

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PITTSBURGH (AP) - Khem Birch isn’t big on going with the flow.

The Pittsburgh freshman wants to stand out, badly. It’s why the former star at Notre Dame Academy (Fitchburg, Mass.) wore long sleeves underneath his jersey while playing in the McDonald's All-American Game. It’s why he donned a white headband for the Jordan Brand Classic.

It’s why his otherwise ho-hum hair now features a blonde streak that’s easily visible from the top of the Petersen Events Center.

“I just like to be different,” he said.

Not just in his sartorial or hairstyle choices either.

The top college basketball programs in the country spent three years heavily recruiting the athletic 6-foot-9 Canadian. They’re practically all there: Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State, Connecticut, Syracuse. The list is long and distinguished.

Yet Birch opted for Pitt.

Coach Jamie Dixon has spent nearly a decade building the Panthers into a national power with a group of players short on star power but long on grit.

Birch is just the second McDonald's All-American to sign with the Panthers, joining junior forward Dante Taylor. Birch insists he wasn’t trying to make a statement heading to Pitt into places with national championship banners hanging from the rafters.

“I just loved the coaching staff,” Birch said.

And the staff loves Birch’s potential. The key is giving him the room to live up to it.

“We know what’s coming and we know it takes time,” Dixon said. “It takes time for good players to play in good programs to get where they want to be.”

That doesn’t mean Dixon thinks Birch can’t have an impact this year. The Panthers lost three starters off a team that won the Big East regular season title last winter and a minor knee injury to senior forward Nasir Robinson could give Birch a chance to turn heads quickly.

Not that he’s in a hurry. Though he proved he could score in high school, averaging 18 points a game as a senior, Birch knows that’s not his job, at least not yet.

The quickest way to earn playing time at Pitt is by rebounding and playing defense. Birch is confident he can do both immediately.

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