Ernest Udeh Jr. is just now starting to believe in what his body is capable of.
The 6-foot-10, 235-pound center from Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., has only taken basketball seriously as a path to a college scholarship since he was a freshman in high school and he’s only grown into a body that makes him a legit Division I level center over the last year. He’s put in years of work on the fundamentals of post work, but it hasn’t really dawned on him until the last few months that his combination of moves, size and athleticism are enough for him to bully his opponents.
“I could always do it in workouts, but never really do it in games,” Udeh told The Daily Hoosier. “… I always say it’s a mental thing for me. Basketball will always be more mental for me than it is physical. I’m telling you, it is. It’s about me going into a game and saying, ‘I have this skill set, I can do it. Go do it. Go score instead of being passive.’ There’s a big difference in me being confident and aggressive.”
This weekend in Atlanta, Indiana assistant Yasir Rosemond saw a much more confident version of Udeh than he has shown in the past. So did a number of other college coaches. Based on the strength of what Udeh has shown in his junior year at Dr. Phillips, which claimed Florda’s Class 7A state championship this season and what he has shown in events since then, especially this month, he’s seeing his interest take a sharp increase. A four-star recruit rated No. 113 in the Class of 2022 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, Udeh has 18 reported scholarship offers. Among those who have offered a grant-in-aid are Alabama, Cincinnati, Creighton, Florida, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Kansas, Miami (Fla.), Ole Miss, Stanford, Temple and Tennessee. Udeh said he’s also started hearing from defending national champion Baylor, and Michigan, Minnesota, and UCLA have reached out within the last few days to express interest with Indiana entering the conversation at around the same time.
“I think a lot of it just has to do with these coaches now being able to see us in person,” Udeh said. “I think coaches can get some idea what we’re like from watching videos and highlights, but there’s a lot more you can see when you get to watch someone in person.”
In person, coaches can tell that Udeh is much more confident imposing his will now than he’s ever been before. He has developed an array of scoring options on the low block and he’s more confident in actually using them. That’s more true now than it was during the high school season and it’s much more true than it was in his sophomore year.
“I got the job when he was a freshman and he didn’t play much at all that year,” Dr. Phillips coach Ben Witherspoon said. “He was very long and athletic, but didn’t really know how to play. Skill level was pretty low. Ever since that point, we’ve spent some time over the summer, there’s been a lot of work with me and him. We worked on being able to finish with both hands, basics of catching the ball and jumping towards the basket when he goes to finish. Positioning, sealing. Everything. Now he’s to the point where he’s got great jump hooks with both hands. He has a good feel for when to go to his counters. He’s just improved tremendously because he’s such a hard worker and he listens and does the work.”
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Udeh is working on a face-up game, and Witherspoon says he has the handle and a smooth stroke that could give him shooting range. But for now, post dominance is more important and that means being more physical than he has been in the past. That’s something he’s finally becoming comfortable with.
“My coach is always telling me, I’m 6-10 and 230,” Udeh said. “It makes no sense for me to be worried about contact. It’s just me being more aggressive and going through people and finishing, using my size to my advantage. That’s something I’m becoming more comfortable with. The biggest thing for me was just the confidence part. I’ve always been a pass-first guy. Coach has been trying to take me out of that habit because saying me being one inch closer to the basket is better than our best shooter taking one from 15 feet. It’s really just been instilling that in me.”
Udeh has never had the same struggles with confidence on defense that he has on the offensive end. There were two reasons for that, one that his coaches always made sure he took defense seriously, and the other being that he didn’t get to be 6-10 until his junior year. He was a 6-5 freshman, but then had to get used to playing on the perimeter. Even as a 6-8 sophomore, he had a wingish body at around 205 pounds, so he was asked to defend wings and guards and was comfortable doing that.
As a result, he’s not only comfortable as a rim protector, but in switches that leave him on guards.
“I never really played on AAU teams that got a lot of attention,” Udeh said. “So it was always about defense. Every coach since middle school has instilled in me that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. We always did defensive drills. It all came naturally to me. Going through the years and working on it, you have to stay aggressive on defense. I’ve always been able to guard on defense, defend 1 through 5. In practice, I won’t shy away from picking up a guard. I’ve always had 110 percent confidence in my defense.”
That makes him a force on that end. In the Class 7A state championship game, he grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked six shots.
“As a defender, man, he’s incredible,” Witherspoon said. “He is a special defensive player, without question. He’s a great shot blocker. Defending guys in the post he does a great job, stays down, stays in a guy’s face and makes you shoot over top of him. Perimeter wise, he can switch out on guards and has quick feet to be able to stay in front of elite-level guards. He has just this instinctual ability with his hands to be able to take the ball away from guards who are trying to get around him, get deflections and steals. He’s a special defender.”
He’s also a special student. Witherspoon and Udeh say that he carries a 4.0 grade point average. Udeh credits that to his mother, an immigrant from Nigeria who demanded that he take academics seriously.
“He’s a special kid all the way around,” Witherspoon said. “He’s got a great mom. She makes sure he takes care of business in the classroom. He’s extremely intelligent. Could be an Ivy League kid if that’s the route he wanted to go. He’s going to have those options.”
Udeh said he’s hoping to study business, which would seem to put Indiana in a good position considering the prominence of IU’s Kelley School of Business. He said he’s still learning about them because of the onslaught of attention, but he’s looking forward to hearing more from them soon.
“The coaches seem like nice guys,” Udeh said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know them more. I should be in contact with the head coach (Mike Woodson) soon. Or he should be contacting me. So I’m looking forward to that.”
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