If Arizona continues its post-Bahamas roll into the Pac-12 season, Dusan Ristic can take a little credit.
Not just for his contributions on the court, but also as a somewhat understated leader.
UA coach Sean Miller told the following story about the post-game locker room scene after Purdue clobbered Arizona in the last-place game of the Battle 4 Atlantis a month ago:
“Dusan was waiting on me and he’s usually just sitting. He said, `Coach, I need to say a few things,' and he did.
"I’m not saying that’s why (UA has succeeded since then). 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.”
Miller told this story after Ristic had left the interview room following UA's 73-58 win over UConn, so I asked Miller what he said specifically. Miller responded:
“What he just said is `This is Arizona. It’s about playing for the win. Three and three is not good enough and we have to do the things that we now need to do to start winning and everybody here has to realize to sacrifice this or sacrifice that.'
"The feeling of losing is overwhelming especially in our program. Dusan and Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), 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 or not that UConn won the last five but this year we beat UConn. It’s about creating our own legacy of 2017-18. That’s what we talk a lot about.
Of Ristic’s speech, Miller added: “It’s one thing to talk about it. You know, 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 double-double (18 and 10) against UConn helped UA compensate for the foul trouble Deandre Ayton got into, partly as a result of a UConn strategy Miller spoke highly of.
“I thought their defensive game plan was really good, to double-team Deandre," Miller said. "They ran a lot of bodies at him and they have some really good guards. Part of why we didn’t look good was them, but I loved the way we finished the game with them, I think on a (16-3) run and that’s what you do when you’re a good team, especially at home.”
“You find your best at the end. it’s good to see our guys do that.”
While Ayton had “only” nine points and seven rebounds, he had five really valuable assists: Four of them were passes to set up 3-pointers, including one to Allonzo Trier with 3:50 left near the beginning of that 16-3 run, and another was for a dunk by Trier later with 2:36 left.
“He maybe had a couple tough calls go against him but his passing is very understated,” Miller said. “He had five assists but I’m not so sure all five of his assists weren’t 3-point shots. His value might have been 15 points right there.
“It’s hard to double-team him. Dusan benefits from that and all of our perimeter players benefit from that. We had a couple of shots that we missed that (Ayton) passed out. They threw everybody at him. The kitchen sink. And I think at some point in the second half he was almost apprehensive to even turn. A couple of times if he would have he would have scored but they were trapping him and they did a good job. That was their game plan: They wanted somebody else to beat him and that’s what happened. Couple of our guys did beat them but it was because of Deandre’s unselfishness."
Arizona hit 9 of 19 3-pointers to creep up to 39.4 percent overall as a team this season. That ranks 41s nationally, according to kenpom.com.
“We have to take good 3s,” Miller said. “But a lot of our 3s tonight came off the inside catch and then out. Those are high-percentage shots. Early in the game we came out maybe a couple of times (for ill-advised shots). In the first eight minutes with our team it’s important that we get the ball close to the basket. Fouls happen, you get to the other team’s bench, we get to the bonus earlier, and that opens up a lot of things. Sometimes like any team we’re not perfect. We lose sight of that. But our 19 threes, 13 or 14 of them were great-looking shots.”
Miller then transitioned into ball movement and the need for better offensive rebounding.
UA is grabbing 31.8 percent of its offensive rebounding opportunities, only the 105th best mark in the country.
“Dusan had a big, big offensive rebound – kicked it out to Parker, and one of Parker’s 3s came off a hustle play and an offensive rebound from Dusan," Miller said. "So that’s the one thing we have to get better at. We don’t offensive rebound at the level we’re capable of and that’s something we have to get better at, and we will.”
Alex Barcello sat out for the second time in the Wildcats’ past three games with a sprained ankle, though Miller said he did not have soreness after playing 11 minutes on Monday against North Dakota State.
Barcello hurt his ankle sometime between Dec. 6-8, according to UA officials. He played three ineffective minutes on Dec. 9 against Alabama, but did not play on Dec. 16 at New Mexico or on Thursday against UConn.
“Alex will play,” Miller said. “His ankle is healthy but he’s missed some time and we elected to go tonight more in that direction (without him) but we need him and he’ll be ready with this rest and the practices. We fully expect him to be a part of things as we get into Pac-12.”
Trier played 35 minutes despite his mild knee sprain, which appeared to affect him slightly. He was 5 for 11 from the field, 2 of 6 from 3-point range, only took four trips to the free-throw line and had one rebound.
“He wasn’t at 100 percent, but he wasn’t at further risk,” Miller said. “He didn’t suffer a tear or anything in his knee. But Allonzo loves the game and he’s a tough kid. He doesn’t miss much either. The fact that he was available and ready is a testament to him. His defense down the stretch was a big reason we won. We switched him on (UConn’s Jalen) Adams and he rose to the challenge, and obviously made big shots.”
When discussing how long many of his players have gone without returning home – since UA's Spain exhibition trip finished up just before the fall semester began – Miller said “Matter of fact, I don’t even remember Thanksgiving for a lot of reasons.”
That "holiday," of course was spent in the Bahamas, but for Christmas, the Wildcats will get a four-day break, Friday through Monday, and return Tuesday to begin preparing for their Dec. 30 game with ASU.
“It’s going to be a break that everybody really needs to connect with their family and people they care about, get away from basketball,” Miller said.
Many players will return to their hometowns, but because the Wildcats’ roster this season is so far-flung, some will just be spending time with friends and/or family who are nearby.
Eight of UA’s 13 scholarship players are from more than 1,000 miles away, while the Wildcats have two Californians (Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Ira Lee), two Arizonans (Talbott Denny and Alex Barcello) and one Las Vegan (Chase Jeter).
So PJC has it among the easiest to get home.
“It’s great for all of us to get away for a couple of days and get our minds off basketball,” PJC said. “When we reconvene back here, we’ll focus on ASU. But for right now, we’re happy what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished in the nonconference and looking forward to break.”