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Arizona basketball: Dusan Ristic making strides as a defender

Ristic is scoring at an efficient rate, but now is a force on defense, too

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Rather than heading home to Serbia this past summer, Dusan Ristic opted to stay in Tucson to work on his craft.

He started boxing, running in sand, and even working out with Arizona football trainers. After spending two seasons as Kaleb Tarczewski’s backup, Ristic was finally in line to be Arizona’s starting center, and he needed to be in tip-top shape to improve the weak points in his game, especially his lateral quickness and strength as a defender.

When the summer came to a close, he had done that. Ristic got his body fat under 10 percent for the first time. He was stronger, quicker and, after having two years of experience in Arizona’s system, smarter.

“He'll be the best version of himself that you've seen,” head coach Sean Miller said on media day in late September. “He has a desire and hunger from somebody his size [that I haven't seen].”

But in Arizona’s first six games, Ristic only scored in double figures twice and only once grabbed more than five rebounds. Defensively, the physical improvements he made in the offseason weren’t on display either.

“Dusan’s going to be fine,” Miller assured after a win over Cal State Bakersfield in mid November in which Ristic had six points and five rebounds in 21 minutes. “...He’s our starter for a reason.”

Miller thought Ristic was simply adjusting to being a full-time starter.

“There’s a difference between starting and coming off the bench,” Miller said after Arizona’s win over Sacred Heart in late November. “When you’re a starter, you feel game pressure and the intensity of the first four minutes. There’s a lot at stake; the score’s zero-zero. It takes you some time to get used to that feeling.”

Well, Ristic is used to that feeling now, apparently.

Since Nov. 30, the 7-footer is averaging 13.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 62 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free throw line.

In that ten-game span, Ristic has scored in double figures nine times.

Putting the ball through the hoop has hardly been Ristic’s issue, though. He’s been able to do that since his freshman season. Even when he was struggling in that department in the beginning of the year, there was little doubt he was going to pick it up.

The skepticism about his defensive ability was a different story, though, and he’s become a force on that end of the floor, too.

Ristic has helped anchor the Wildcats’ defense, a defense that is the ninth-best in college basketball, according to

From an individual standpoint, Ristic has the best defensive rating — an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions — of his career at 90.8.

There are still areas Ristic can improve, namely his defensive rebounding, but he set out to be a more complete player in his junior season and he has become that.

“As well as he’s playing on offense, one of the things that you notice is that he’s an improved defensive player,” Miller said. “You can’t take advantage of him defensively like you once could.

“And that’s to Dusan’s credit.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire