These KU players are already thinking about returning: What Yesufu, Udeh said

Kansas freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. looked around the locker room and took it all in.

The No. 1-seeded Jayhawks had just lost 72-71 to No. 8 Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

The emotions of his teammates ranged from sadness to looks of apathy.

Senior guard Kevin McCullar couldn’t hide his tears. Freshman star Gradey Dick reminisced about the season while talking to reporters.

Star forward Jalen Wilson held a pained expression as he blamed himself for the loss. Guard MJ Rice stared at the locker room carpet with headphones on his ears.

As Udeh soaked the scene in, he quickly realized he didn’t ever want to be in this situation again.

He believed the loss would forever stick in his mind as he felt he had let the seniors down. Udeh said he’d carry that burden until he made up for it.

“Obviously, making the tournament ... (at) Kansas isn’t an achievement. You’re expected to,” Udeh told The Star postgame. “That’s why I came to this school, to win championships. Not only just have a winning record or anything, but the (expectation) is to get hardware. You come to Kansas to do that.”

As the backup five behind KJ Adams, Udeh averaged 8.3 minutes per game. He was key at times, such as in wins over Kentucky at Rupp Arena or in the Big 12 Tournament against Iowa State, but finished the season with hopes of improving in a variety of ways.

“For sure scoring, me being solid on the defensive end and things of that nature,” Udeh told The Star earlier in March. “Just being more comfortable trying to get to the basket and put up points and whatnot, but also (playing with) that defensive tenacity.”

Udeh is also ready to step into a leadership role with the departure of Wilson and McCullar.

“I’d say we have three leaders, Juan (Harris), J-Will and Kevin,” Udeh said. “We listen to those guys. And moving forward, I have to be able to not specifically be the leader, but be a voice in the locker room and help all five guys on the court.”

Like Udeh, sophomore bench guard Bobby Pettiford is ready to step into a leadership role.

“Next year, I will definitely be a veteran,” Pettiford told The Star. “I’ve played in games this year.”

Editor’s note: Pettiford reportedly entered the transfer portal Wednesday.

He hopes to start alongside Harris next season but knows he has much to work on this summer. The guard averaged 2.2 points per game in 32 contests. He posted 43 assists to 36 turnovers.

“I expect to improve on everything, (my) whole game,” Pettiford said. “Definitely shooting the ball from outside to play alongside Juan.”

The Jayhawks will also be working in some youth on next year’s roster. That includes additions from the Class of 2023 in combo guards Elmarko Jackson, Chris Johnson and Jamari McDowell, plus newly reclassified forward Marcus Adams.

It’ll make the roster crunch challenging for Kansas — which can give out 12 scholarships next season.

After Cam Martin entered the transfer portal on Monday, players who didn’t crack the rotation could look to join him. That list could include Rice (7.5 minutes per game), sophomore big Zach Clemence (5.7 minutes) and freshman guard Kyle Cuffe Jr. (3.0 minutes, two games played).

If any of them transfer, it’ll open up some roster spots for KU that are sorely needed.

Seldom-used freshman big Zuby Ejiofor will likely battle Udeh for minutes next year, assuming both are back. In addition, Harris will almost certainly return as the Jayhawks’ starting point guard.

If Dick departs, that leaves an average of almost 45 points per game to replace him, Wilson and McCullar.

Adams could help alleviate some of the scoring concerns. He averaged 10.6 points despite not having much of a mid-range or outside shot. However, he’s looking to change that. He plans to work on his shooting in the offseason.

Junior bench guard Joseph Yesufu, who averaged 4.1 points per game, didn’t hesitate when asked if he planned to return. He said he hopes to come back and make a run next year.

“We had a special season — we won a regular season title, but we were hoping for more,” Yesufu told The Star. “We wanted to do more (to) make our fans proud.”

The roster is still somewhat in flux for next season, with only a handful of players confirming plans to return.

Perhaps that best fits a belief of Udeh — that it takes a special player to wear a Kansas uniform.

“When you wear that Kansas on your chest, there’s a lot that’s expected of you and a lot that you have to buy into,” Udeh said. “People come here wanting to win championships. ... It takes a level a of dedication and you’ve got to really care about it.”