SALT LAKE CITY — Before living with Kadeem Allen at the start of college, Dusan Ristic hadn’t heard much music by rapper 50 Cent in a long time.
“50 was really popular in Serbia,” Ristic said, “like 10 years ago.”
But Allen is a fan of the rapper’s music, particularly a track called “What Up, Gangsta.” Reminded of this, and Ristic’s fondness for the song, Allen yelled out to Ristic across Arizona’s locker room in Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“Hey Dusan, how’s that song go again?”
Ristic turned bright red and retreated into his locker.
The Wildcats will need Ristic to step up, particularly on defense, if they hope to stop Saint Mary’s in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game.
Gaels center Jock Landale has made a habit of embarrassing opposing centers, and he’s the main reason why the West Coast Conference school is a popular pick for an upset.
Ristic doesn’t need to remember rap lyrics. But it’s no secret — he needs to play his part in stopping Landale on Saturday.
“Jock is a great player, probably one of the best centers in the country right now,” Ristic said. “He’s having a great season.”
Once a little-used reserve, Landale is averaging 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against VCU in Saint Mary’s first-round win Thursday.
Only a few teams have managed to stop him, or at least slow him down. That list includes Gonzaga (twice), BYU and Texas-Arlington.
Against Arizona, Landale, listed at 6 feet 11 inches and 255 pounds, will face a front line of three players — Ristic, Chance Comanche and Lauri Markkanen — that are his size or bigger.
Landale said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“Our league is filled with guys who aren’t really the tallest players in America, so it’s always nice going up against guys who are 7-footers,” Landale said. “I think the 7-footers, it’s a lot easier to get around them as opposed to smaller guys who are quicker so we can use our speed in the post which is what our guys are really good at. I think we can exploit their (Arizona’s) defense a bit.”
That assessment might be fair.
In Arizona’s last two games against UCLA, 7-footer Thomas Welsh made 12 of 15 shots for 32 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.
In the Pac-12 championship game, Oregon’s Jordan Bell made all five of his shots, scored 13 points and had eight rebounds.
North Dakota’s Drick Bernstine made 8 of 12 shots and grabbed 15 rebounds against Arizona on Thursday, and he’s only 6-8.
Landale is more of a matchup nightmare than any of them.
He catches everything, can score with either hand and is difficult to defend on the pick-and-roll.
“He doesn’t struggle as much with the size,” said SMC guard Joe Rahon. “He’s so good that generally those guys can’t really stop him. We try to get him the ball as much as possible.”
Ristic’s defense has been a work in progress for two years. He has played better at times this season but has too often regressed.
“He works at it every day,” Comanche said. “He may not be the best every day; everyone has their off days, but overall Dusan works hard on defense every day. He works to get better at it.”
In his last 12 games, Ristic has only one block. In the first half of Thursday’s win, Ristic had zero points and three rebounds . Bernstine had 12 and 10. Ristic bounced back in the second half with 12 points and three more rebounds.
“Dusan is going to be important. But where we are at in the season now everybody is. Dusan didn’t play, in my opinion, up to his ability level the first half of last night’s game. We felt that as a team,” said UA coach Sean Miller.
“He’s made great improvement. But tomorrow our entire front line will be challenged because I think they have just a great, great player.”
Ristic will be important in stopping Landale on Saturday night, but it’s not exactly Landale vs. Ristic, Australia vs. Serbia. It’ll also be Comanche vs. Landale, and Markkanen vs. Landale.
Ristic will just get the first crack at it.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season. I think I’ve improved my pick-and-roll defense, defending low post defense,” he said. “But (Saturday) I’ll have a great challenge defending one of the best centers in the country, and I can’t wait for that game.
Ristic might not remember the lyrics to “What up, Gangsta.” Maybe he knows this one — in 2015, 50 Cent released a song called “I’m the Man.”
Ristic needs to be one Saturday.