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Dusan Ristic oozing with confidence during Arizona’s winning streak

Is the big man playing his best basketball to date?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 21 UConn at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After Dusan Ristic had 15 points and eight rebounds in a win vs. Colorado on Thursday, a reporter asked the big man if he thought it was one of his best performances at Arizona.

The Serb’s stoic expression quickly turned into a wide smile.

“You guys keep asking me the same question every game,” Ristic joked.

But he has given us media folks plenty of reason to ask.

In the last nine games, Ristic is averaging 13 points and eight rebounds per contest, shooting nearly 60 percent from the field.

Ristic scored 18 points on 9-13 shooting in a tight win at Stanford last Saturday, then followed it up by shooting 7-8 against Colorado on Thursday, arguably the senior’s two best games as a Wildcat — whether he thinks so or not.

“It’s great to see somebody like him that’s paid the price over a four-year period of time get this here in the prime of his senior year and play like he’s playing,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s really a very efficient, talented player and has worked to become that, as everybody knows.”

Indeed, Ristic was Arizona’s least heralded recruit in 2014 and spent his first two seasons with the program as a reserve.

Now, he is Arizona’s third-best player behind Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, who would be the two best players on nearly every team in America.

Ristic’s work ethic has allowed him to hone his skills and improve physically, but Miller said the big man’s recent excellence has a lot to do with the c-word: Confidence.

“Confidence is big in sports, but you don’t wave a magic wand as a coach and give a kid confidence,” Miller said. “They have to earn it, and their process has a lot to do with whether they’re able to get there. Dusan’s really gotten there.

“He has gained confidence and deservedly so. He practices extremely hard and never cuts a corner. And as you guys know, he’s equally adept around the basket — left hand, right hand.”

Ristic’s senior year did not get off to the best start.

He was benched in all three games Arizona lost in the Bahamas because the Wildcats could not figure out how to effectively play him and Ayton concurrently.

Sometimes Arizona still has issues with that, but only defensively now. Ristic and Ayton have developed tremendous synergy on offense, each scoring in double figures seven times in the last eight games.

Opponents go to extreme measures to slow down Ayton, like doubling him on every touch, which only makes things easier for Ristic.

“Dusan sometimes has the secondary defender, but he’s taking advantage of it and it’s one of the reasons his offense is good right now,” Miller said. “We can go to either guy in the post.”

Arizona is 14-1 since it lost those three games in the Bahamas.

Ristic is only six wins away from becoming Arizona’s all-time winningest player, but he seems more concerned about a different number.

Five — no, not the number of wins Arizona has tallied in a row, but the number of home games Ristic has left at McKale Center, which has essentially been his domicile the last four years.

Ristic has only gone back to Serbia for three whole weeks since joining the UA program in 2014-15.

“I don’t have a lot of games left in McKale,” he said. “I have a few more and I’m just trying to give my best every game. I am trying to help this team win as many games as I can. ... Everybody is expecting me to play like this, especially at the end of my career here in Arizona.”

Well, not everybody. Ristic has proven a lot of people wrong with his recent play.

Once seen by many as a skilled, yet limited, player, Ristic has blossomed into a viable two-way center for the Wildcats. The usually-reserved big man has even shown a bit of a mean streak which he partly credits to Ayton.

Oh, and point guard skills too.

In Thursday’s game, Ristic corralled a defensive rebound and dribbled swiftly past midcourt before finally handing the ball off to Brandon Randolph.

Ristic then positioned himself on the block, caught an entry pass, and spun around his defender for two, finishing with a fancy finger roll, his face beaming as he jogged back on defense.

“That’s the deal where you watch one dribble, you watch three, you watch five and then you say ‘he better make sure he hands the ball off’,” Miller quipped about Ristic’s ball-handling.

A few plays later, Ristic floated a pass from the 3-point line over the Colorado defense to Ayton who jammed it home.

Ristic grinned again.

“You guys have watched a lot of players play at Arizona, but very few have come as far on the spectrum of who he was when he got here and who he is today,” Miller said, “and it’s great to see a player like him have that type of confidence.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire