After latest solid effort, Kansas freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. remains focused on the work

Kansas center Ernest Udeh Jr. (23) comes in to finish a lob jam against Seton Hall forward Tyrese Samuel (4) during the second half on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas freshman Ernest Udeh’s marching orders have been pretty simple since the day he arrived on KU’s campus.

Set good screens. Rebound. Run to the rim. Finish lobs.

Anything outside of that, at least to this point, would be considered gravy. Yet, as the 6-foot-11 rookie has discovered, executing even those tasks is a heck of a lot easier said than done.

“College basketball, I’m not going to lie, is way faster than high school,” Udeh said after Thursday’s win over Seton Hall. “When I get in the gym and I work on certain things, I feel comfortable going out on the court.”

That’s a pretty honest assessment of his current reality. And it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that Udeh, for all of his talent and potential, is still just a freshman. Some guys go their entire careers without being able to admit to not being comfortable.

Udeh’s play — or lack thereof — has shown that at times, though, so it’s not as if this is some revelation. He’s played in eight of KU’s nine games so far and logged single-digit minutes in half of them and double-digit minutes in the other half.

Thursday’s win was one of those double-digit games, and it might’ve been his best. He made every shot he attempted — four field goals and two free throws — and finished with 10 points and two rebounds, with a steal and an assist in 12 minutes.

He played hard, looked more confident and did his job. He’ll be the first to tell you that, and his assessment is based way more on the outcome of the game than his own statistics.

“I feel like tonight I did what I needed to do to help the team get a win,” he said.

Here’s the best news for Udeh: No one on the Kansas bench is asking or expecting him to do it all on his own. KJ Adams played 16 minutes at the 5 on Thursday while Zach Clemence and Zuby Ejiofor combined to handle the rest.

Together, Adams and Udeh combined for 21 points in 28 minutes.

“If we could get anything close to that, that’d be fantastic,” Self said, noting that Udeh did “some good things.”

Neither was particularly effective on the glass, but Jalen Wilson (13 rebounds) and Kevin McCullar Jr. (10) didn’t allow for anyone else to do much, rebounding 23 of the Pirates’ 27 misses.

Asked after the game where his head was through his early adjustment to this new level, Udeh said he didn’t want to be given a pass because he’s just a freshman. If anything, that fact is what Udeh leans on to put in the work required to be viewed as something more than the new guy still trying to figure it out.

“At the end of the day, I’m a basketball player,” he said. “I’ve just got to always be in the gym every day and watching film to get better. … First things first; how can I help the team get a win, how can I make the team better? And then all the personal stuff just will come after.”

When asked what he wanted to improve most during the coming weeks, Udeh doubled down on his team-first mentality and none of it sounded like lip service or a guy just trying to say the right things. Instead, it sounded like setting good screens, rebounding, trying to protect the rim and playing hard really were all he cared about right now.

“It’s hard to really think about (my own needs) when (I’m) so focused on what coach wants me to do,” Udeh said. “It’s not a hard question, but (with) the mindset I’m in right now it’s real hard for me to think of an answer.”

If he can bring more of what he did Thursday to the rest of KU’s games, that will be answer enough.


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