Because he plays alongside the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, you could figure Arizona senior center Dusan Ristic is either liberated of pressure or buried in the shadows.
Good or bad.
Even he’s not sure.
“You tell me,” Ristic said, laughing.
Whatever. As Ristic showed Thursday, with 18 points and 10 rebounds in UA’s 73-58 win over UConn, the Serbian big man continues to grow no matter how fast fellow 7-footer Deandre Ayton shoots toward stardom.
On and off the court.
On the court, Ristic said he’s actually benefited by playing against Ayton this season, after doing so against NBA lottery pick Lauri Markkanen last season and against four-year Wildcat institution Kaleb Tarczewski in the two seasons before that.
“I’ve had an opportunity to play with great players here at Arizona and … I learned from all of them,” Ristic said. “So maybe they talk more about Deandre, but that helps me, too, just going against Deandre every day in practice.
“It’s a thing not a lot of players get to do. Obviously, he’s one of a kind. He’s an unbelievable player and I’m just happy to have the privilege to play against him every day.”
Of course, UA coach Sean Miller has been pretty effusive about Ayton, too. So much so that Miller said Thursday that he doesn’t talk enough about Ristic.
But over Ristic’s three-plus years in Tucson, Miller has spoken about him a lot. Miller has detailed Ristic’s hard-driving work habits. His modest and agreeable personality. The sand-pit workouts he did in mid-summer heat. And the fact that he rarely takes time to return home to Serbia, instead working on his game at his adopted home in the desert.
Then, on Thursday, Miller also detailed how Ristic has also improved as a leader off the court.
On Nov. 24, Arizona lost its third game in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis, an embarrassing 89-64 blowout to Purdue that would send the Wildcats straight out of the AP top 25 poll from the No. 2 spot.
Miller walked into an Atlantis meeting room that served as the Wildcats’ locker room, and immediately noticed something different.
“Dusan was waiting on me and he’s usually just sitting,” Miller said. “He said, ‘Coach, I need to say a few things’ — and he did.”
Miller said Ristic told his teammates that “this is Arizona, it’s about playing for the win,” that they needed to sacrifice, and that their 3-3 record at the time wasn’t good enough.
The Wildcats are now 10-3.
“I’m not saying that’s why,” Miller said. “It wasn’t like this great speech that turned things around but it shows you as a senior and as somebody who’s worked as hard as he’s worked, that what we do here really matters and when someone like that really steps up in front of his teammates, they know that what he said is very heartfelt.
“It’s good to see him not only play well but we’ve won seven games in a row since then and he’s been a big part of all seven games.”
That’s not always the case with guys who speak out, Miller said.
“It’s one thing to talk about it,” Miller said. “Sometimes you see that player stand up in front of his team. He gives a rah-rah speech — and about four days later he’s late for practice. Dusan leads by example and that’s one of the powerful things we have going for us moving forward.”
Ristic’s actions were rooted not just in sincerity, but in experience. He called the Bahamas trip a “really tough time,” having been around too long at Arizona to know what extended failure is like.
This is a guy who has won 98 of the 119 UA games he’s played in, putting him on pace to finish his college career as the Wildcats’ winningest player ever. He only needs to play in 13 more UA victories to break the record of 110 shared by Tarczewski and Matt Muehlebach (1988-91).
Fellow senior Parker Jackson-Cartwright has a shot at the record, too: He’s been a part of 93 wins so far, and needs to be a part of 20 more wins. Arizona has 18 Pac-12 games remaining, but could get up to nine more games between the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments.
Either way, both have done a lot of winning. And built up a lot of pride.
“The feeling of losing is overwhelming especially in our program. Dusan and Parker, those guys have won two regular-season championships and two Pac-12 Tournament championships. There’s a lot of pride when you do those things and you want to do those types of things in your senior year.
“You don’t want to go 0-3 in the Bahamas. So I think for Dusan, his legacy and the legacy of our team will be what we do this year. Not what happened 10 years ago... It’s about creating our own legacy of 2017-18. That’s what we talk a lot about.”
Ristic received the message. Now he’s trying to redistribute it.
With actions and words alike.
“I’m just trying to help this team win as many games as we can,” Ristic said. “I’m trying to raise my defense to another level. Trying to defend the ball screens, defending the post players, rebounding the ball better — and overall becoming a better player.”