KU forward Ernest Udeh Jr. has ‘all the confidence in the world’ after win at Kentucky

Rich Sugg/KC Star file photo/rsugg@kcstar.com

As Kansas forward Ernest Udeh Jr. entered Saturday’s game at Kentucky, some among the outnumbered KU faithful stared anxiously at the Rupp Arena court.

The last time Udeh had played double-digit minutes was 58 days earlier as KU coasted to an easy 91-65 victory over Seton Hall at Allen Fieldhouse.

For his part, Udeh’s mindset Saturday was the same as it might’ve been during any game … except this wasn’t any regular game.

The Jayhawks were in the midst of a three-game losing streak, desperate for a win over fellow basketball blue blood Kentucky.

His matchup as he took the court? Only the 2022 Naismith National Player of the Year, Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe.

Udeh entered the game with 7:12 left in the first half and KU up by two points (26-24). He relieved fellow bench big Zuby Ejiofor after Ejiofor sprained an ankle.

Udeh recalled thinking, “(I) just need to do what coach needs me to do. Also, being aware of the circumstance, you know — KJ (Adams) being in foul trouble and Zuby being down. … I know I have to go in and play smart, making sure I’m doing what I need to be doing and also staying out of foul trouble myself.”

It’s been a season-long search for Kansas coach Bill Self, a quest to find out which of his three young big men (Zach Clemence, Ejiofor and Udeh) can play 10-15 minutes available off the bench as Adams’ backup. Udeh averages 7.3 minutes per game.

On Saturday, Udeh made his case for a more prominent role. He scored four points on 2-for-2 shooting from the floor and grabbed two rebounds in 12 minutes as KU won 77-68.

More importantly, Udeh did all the little things and helped mitigate Tshiebwe’s impact — especially on the boards. Tshiebwe finished with nine rebounds and tied his season low on the offensive end (two).

“We thought if we could actually screen somebody, we could have (at) it and run to the rim,” Self said. “We were able to get six points that way, pretty easy baskets. I thought (Udeh) did a good job there.

“He’s young and he’s not ready to defend (Tshiebwe) one-on-one, but I actually thought he did a pretty good job of staying between him and the basket.”

On KU’s first possession after subbing in Udeh, the big man set a screen for guard Dajuan Harris and then rolled to the rim. Harris lobbed a pass to Udeh, who converted the alley-oop.

Udeh brings a level of length and athleticism that the undersized Jayhawks otherwise lack. He provides Kansas vertical spacing and rim-running, lob-threat ability.

“We’ve got airspace guys like Zuby and Ernest; when you throw it up there, they are going to go get it,” KU guard Kevin McCullar said.

On the defensive end, meanwhile, Udeh is a developing rim protector and good rebounder. Compared to Clemence and Ejiofor, Udeh’s skill set matches up well with how Self wants his bigs to play.

No matter how much, or little, Udeh plays, he is ready for any opportunity.

“All the guys give me confidence every day,” Udeh said. “They talk to me every day. It’s a real family environment. That’s ultimately why I came here. There’s no better place to be. ... These guys give me all the confidence in the world.”