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Dusan Ristic’s play, leadership key to Arizona’s resurgence

Ristic’s numbers are better than ever, and his leadership has been invaluable to a Wildcat team that has won seven straight

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Dusan Ristic is midway through his fourth and final season with the Arizona Wildcats and he’s playing his best basketball to date.

The 7-footer’s offensive efficiency is at an all-time high, so are his rebounding numbers and defensive proficiency.

But little has been made about it. Even by his own coach.

“I don’t talk enough about Dusan,” Sean Miller admitted after Ristic posted 18 points and 10 rebounds in UA’s win over UConn on Thursday. “Sometimes your compliant family member or your compliant player, you don’t need to give him any attention because he’s always good. And that’s really my fault.”

It’s nothing new, though — Ristic has been overshadowed by one star player after another throughout his tenure in Tucson.

In his first two seasons, the Serbian was a mere reserve to Kaleb Tarczewski. As a junior, Ristic shared a frontcourt with sharpshooting lottery pick Lauri Markkanen. And now as a senior he starts alongside potential No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and two of the best wing players in the country in Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins.

Those guys get the limelight, but Ristic doesn’t mind.

“I’ve had an opportunity to play with great players here at Arizona and I learned from all of them,” he 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.”

Practicing against players like Ayton regularly has aided Ristic’s development, to be sure, but so has his own drive.

Ristic has been all in on Arizona basketball since arriving in the desert back in 2014. Miller estimated the big man has only returned home to Serbia for three weeks in the last four years.

As other players break for the summer, Ristic hangs around UA’s facilities to perfect his game.

“When I think of the players that embody the qualities of a program that we want to have, I think of Dusan,” Miller said. “I think of T.J. McConnell, those types of players, and there’s a lot of them. Kyle Fogg. Kadeem Allen. Nick Johnson. Kaleb Tarczewski. It’s not just the younger players that have left to be in the NBA — they speak for themselves — but somebody like Dusan has outworked the competition.

“In 110-degree heat, he’s run in the sand pit with our strength coach. He has worked endless hours to make his body stronger and more explosive. He’s developed. There’s not one member of our coaching staff, managers, players that would say anything other than Dusan is one of the hardest working players that we’ve ever had.”

Ristic had impeccable footwork and a feathery touch around the basket when he first stepped on the UA campus — that hasn’t changed — but he also arrived with glaring weaknesses in his game, especially on defense.

He wasn’t quick enough to guard in space or strong enough to control the paint, and he struggled with his positioning.

Three years later, Ristic still isn’t a world-beater on that end of the floor and vows he is “trying to raise [his] defense to another level,” but his development has not gone unnoticed.

“He rebounds better, he defends better and obviously we all know he has an uncanny soft touch in the post,” Miller said. “I’m just thrilled for him that with all the sacrifice, that he can see the fruits of his labor. He’s a really important piece to our future ... and watching him in his senior year when it comes together, that’s what you want to happen for him.”

Ristic’s stats are better than ever in his senior season but, fittingly, his biggest contribution to the surging Wildcats may have happened out of the public eye.

“When we lost our third game in three days in the Bahamas ... I walked into the locker room after we lost to Purdue and Dusan was waiting on me,” Miller said. “He’s usually just sitting. He said, ‘coach, I need to say a few things’ and he did.”

Miller continued, “He just said this is Arizona. It’s about playing for the win. 3-3 is not good enough. We have to do the things that we need to do to start winning whatever that is, and everybody here has to realize that it might be to sacrifice this or sacrifice that.

“The feeling of losing is overwhelming, especially in our program. We have a lot of pride. 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’ve done those things. You want to do those types of things in the last year. You don’t want to go 0-3 in the Bahamas.

“So 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 identity and our legacy of 2017-18. Those were his comments, but that’s what we talk a lot about. It’s one thing to talk about it, and sometimes you see that player stand in front of his team and he gives that 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.”

Miller said Ristic is one of the most popular players among his teammates “because he cares about the team” so when the big man stepped forward to address them in Atlantis, you bet they listened — and evidently they got the message.

Arizona is 7-0 since.

“I’m not saying that’s why (we’ve turned things around) ... but I think it shows you that as a senior and somebody that’s worked as hard as he’s worked that what we do here really matters,” Miller said.

“And when someone like that steps up in front of his teammates, they know what he says is very heartfelt. It’s good to see him not only play well, but we’ve won seven games since then and he’s been a big part of all seven games that we’ve played."

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire