The Arizona Wildcats can accomplish some things with a sweep on their upcoming road trip to Oregon.
For one, they would clinch (at least) a share of the Pac-12 title. It would also make Dusan Ristic the program’s all-time wins leader.
The senior has appeared in 109 victories at Arizona. Kaleb Tarczewski and Matt Muehlebach, the current leaders, played in 110.
So... win for Dusan? Is that the theme this weekend?
“Dusan is very popular in our locker room as he should be,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I think our guys are aware that he’s approaching the win record, but I think the bigger picture with our guys and our team is that we’re competing for a regular season conference championship.”
Ristic said he doesn’t have much free time — his schedule consists of “school, basketball, and sometimes movies. That’s pretty much it,” he said — so he hasn’t really thought about being on the verge of history.
The Pac-12 title means more to him, anyway.
“When I came here my freshman year, I was never aware of that [record] before,” he said. “I never thought about it before. And now when I have a realistic chance to do it, I’m not really obsessed about it. It’s a great accomplishment, but my focus is on winning the Pac-12 regular season championship and then playing in the Pac-12 Tournament. So that’s not my primary focus right now.”
Miller thinks it’s “very appropriate” that someone like Ristic will likely become Arizona’s all-time wins leader.
Aside from maybe Solomon Hill, Miller cannot think of another player who has worked as hard and developed the way Ristic has in four years in Tucson.
The Novi Sad, Serbia native has transformed from a “gangly” unheralded three-star recruit into one of the Pac-12’s best big men.
“It would be fitting that someone who’s spent as much time away from home, that’s worked as hard as he has, could be considered the most improved players in our program’s history,” Miller said.
Ristic added, “I think I have improved a lot, comparing my game my freshman year to right now. There’s a huge difference in my game. I became a better player overall. Not just (in one area), but my whole game. I’m just glad now I’ll have a chance to show my improvement, and hopefully I keep improving.”
Ristic is averaging 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on 59 percent shooting this season, all career-highs.
The big man is playing with more confidence than ever, too, becoming not only one of Arizona’s best players, but most reliable as well.
Another product of his work ethic.
“Confidence isn’t something that you’re born with,” Ristic said. “You earn confidence everyday in practice, when you do extra work, and I think that’s something that I deserve. Something that I’ve earned.”
Oddly, fellow senior Parker Jackson-Cartwright has not tallied as many victories as Ristic, despite the fact they entered the program the same season. Jackson-Cartwright has 104.
That’s because the point guard missed a few games as a freshman with a concussion, then a few more with a high ankle sprain as a junior.
But while Jackson-Cartwright won’t pass Ristic on the all-time wins list, he can still usurp Tarczewski and Muehlebach.
“If we keep winning in March, he’ll still win a lot of games and he’ll probably have more than 110, too,” Ristic said. “That’s going to show how both of us honored the process these last four years, and both of us gave a lot to this program and improved here.”
Both of them are approaching their last two home games at McKale Center, where they have only lost three times in four years.
It’s a special venue for Ristic, a home away from home. The big man has rarely gone back to Serbia since arriving in Tucson in 2014.
So throughout his senior season, Ristic has been well-aware of how many more times he’ll get to play in front of the Arizona faithful.
“I have two games left at McKale and I still don’t believe it,” he said. “I’ll understand it when I’m one game away from my last game, because right now our focus is the Oregon trip. And I think this is arguably one of the most important trips of the season for us.
“I think if we win both games, we’re going to put ourselves in a really good position to win the Pac-12.”
Indeed, there would be a new name atop UA’s all-time wins list if that happens, too.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire