Basketball Preview: Freshmen ready to make an impact

By Kelly Flanigan

Freshman men’s basketball player Khem Birch jokingly attributes the 10 pounds he added to his… Freshman men’s basketball player Khem Birch jokingly attributes the 10 pounds he added to his frame since arriving at Pitt to Burger King and junk food.

More likely, it resulted from the collegiate-level training he’s undergone as he and fellow freshman big man Malcolm Gilbert worked diligently to bulk up before their freshman season.

“It’s changed since high school,” Birch said of his body. “Every day, consistently, it’s working out and then individual work. It’s been hard on our bodies.”

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon praised the two for their work ethic.

“The important thing to mention about those two guys is that they have been here for about a month and a half, and Khem put on 10 pounds and Malcolm’s put on 14 pounds,” Dixon said. “It just goes to show what hard work and being around guys that work hard will do.”

Each one of Pitt’s four true freshmen — Birch, Gilbert, John Johnson and Durand Johnson — are adjusting to collegiate-level basketball. For Birch, expectations from Pitt fans are particularly high.

Birch, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is the second McDonald’s All-American Dixon has landed in the past three years. Junior Dante Taylor was also a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school.

“[Coach Dixon] said I’ll play both” power forward and center, Birch said. “He said maybe me and Dante will be on the floor together.”

Birch graduated from Notre Dame Preparatory School in Massachusetts, where he averaged 18 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks per game as a senior. He was touted as one of the nation’s top shot blockers in his recruiting class.

He chose Pitt over classic basketball powers North Carolina, Kentucky, Syracuse, Connecticut, Ohio State, Texas and Florida.

Even early in the season, Dixon feels optimistic about what he sees from Birch.

“He’s going to be a very good player,” Dixon said. “He’s really picking things up well, and that’s been encouraging for me.”

Gilbert — an outgoing center and the other front-court player in the recruiting class — hails from from Smyrna, Del., and measures in at 6-foot-11 and 235 pounds. He was ranked No. 12 in his recruiting class by, and ESPN ranks him as a four-star center.

Gilbert has gained 14 pounds since arriving on campus. With a massive wingspan, Gilbert, like Birch, is known for his shot-blocking abilities and should provide solid defense at the low post position.

A graduate of Academy of the New Church in Pennsylvania, Gilbert was a McDonald’s All-American nominee.

As a senior, he averaged six points, four blocks and nearly five rebounds per game. Gilbert is known for his ability to change the flow of a game without necessarily scoring.

Gilbert said he focused his offseason work on scoring, particularly refining his hook shot, jump shot and overall scoring around the rim.

“I love defense, but I love running the floor as well,” Gilbert said.

The Panthers also brought in freshmen John Johnson and Durand Johnson to complement Birch and Gilbert in the front court.

John Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound combination guard from Philadelphia, is known for his bursts of speed off the dribble.

He attended high school at Life Center Academy in New Jersey, where he became only the second player in the Philadelphia region to earn All-State honors in all four years of competition.

Johnson averaged 19 points per game over his high school years, amassing nearly 2,320 total points for his career. Johnson said Dixon has high expectations for all his freshmen.

“He expects all the freshmen to come in and play defense, to learn all the plays and do everything right,” Johnson said.

Perhaps Johnson’s biggest asset to Dixon’s system is his ability to play hard-nosed and gritty defense.

“I really just like to play a lot of defense, and to slash to the basket,” Johnson said. “I like to score, but I’m working on being a point guard and getting my teammates more involved.”

Durand Johnson — no relation to John Johnson — is a 6-foot-6, 190-pound forward from Baltimore, Md. He attended high school at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.

In the 2010-2011 season, he helped guide his Brewster team to a 31-3 overall record and a berth in the National Prep Championship Semifinal Game, where they lost to Notre Dame Prep of Massachusetts — Gilbert’s high school.

Durand played his senior season at Baltimore’s Lake Clifton High School, where he averaged 15 points per game. He is the No.-39 ranked forward of his recruiting class by ESPNU.

Johnson is known for his explosive scoring ability and accurate long-range shooting.

“Basically [Coach Dixon] wants me to be more of a three guard for right now, as I establish my position as a freshman,” Johnson said. “Later in the years, I’ll probably move on to a two guard. That’s just what I’m thinking.”

Senior forward Nasir Robinson said he thinks the four true freshmen are ready to step in and perform for the Panthers.

“They’ve all worked hard this summer,” Robinson said. “I think when their names get called, they’re going to be ready to play.”

He also expressed confidence that scoring would not be an issue and that his teammates would step up when needed.

Dixon doesn’t let the year beside his players’ names define their play-making abilities, and the coach seems to believe that a promising season is in store for the entire team.

“On paper I guess we have a young team, but we won’t ever use that as an excuse,” Dixon said.