Players like Dusan Ristic are a dying breed in the upper echelon of college basketball. Not just his classic back-to-the-basket game, but that he stuck around for four seasons and worked his way to the top—from a seldomly-used backup to a starter on a conference championship team.
The Serbian big man increased his scoring and rebounding totals every single year with the Arizona Wildcats, eventually averaging 12.2 points and 6.9 boards per game as a senior.
If there was anything that remained the same, it was that Ristic was a winner. He won three Pac-12 championships and graduated as the winningest player in program history, appearing in 115 victories, still the most all-time.
Now Ristic is playing professionally overseas with BC Astana in the VTB League after spending a season with Red Star Belgrade in Serbia. On Sunday we posted his comments about his budding pro career (and how his time at the UA helped him get there), and now it’s time to get his thoughts on his Arizona career.
Here is the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ryan Kelapire: What was the difference between freshman year Dusan and senior year Dusan?
Dusan Ristic: “When you find yourself at a program like Arizona, you’re not competing only with yourself and others, you have to get better, you have to train hard, but also you have to compete with other players for that playing time. And when you’re at Arizona you have 10 other really good players that are all potential pros. So just having that opportunity to play against those players everyday in practice, it makes you a better player. Same thing for me. Even though I made a physical progress, my body got stronger, I got used to a faster pace of basketball, and everything else that comes with college basketball, I was also able to compete with the top level players every day.
“I feel like each year I made progress, and that’s what it’s all about, just trying to be a better version of yourself every year. But it was a long process. I can’t tell you, ‘hey, I got better at one thing.’ It was a combination of a lot of things that I improved. Not only basketball-wise, but also after basketball. When you leave your home and go to a completely different culture and different country, you become a more independent person, you become readier for life and for your career afterwards. And that gave me a stronger character. Like for example, now when I’m in Russia, when it’s super cold outside, when I have to travel twice a week, three- or four-hour flights, everything’s easier for me because I had already been through that.”
RK: What did you take away from your senior year in particular? It was your best season statistically and your team won a Pac-12 regular season and tournament championship, but also dealt with off-the-court issues and was upset by Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
DR: “All my years were really memorable and I’ve enjoyed all of them, but the best one, if I had to choose, was probably my last year. We dealt with a lot of adversity on the court and it wasn’t easy for us, but I think we still managed to play really well. I played the best basketball of my career in college, but the loss against Buffalo still hurts because I felt that team deserved and had the quality to go much, much further. But again we dealt with a lot of stuff from the outside, and for young kids we weren’t supposed to go through all of that, and it was a really hard situation, so I can’t really be that mad about the loss against Buffalo.”
“But it was a great year. I had so much fun playing well, just being one of the best players on the team, winning those games, playing in front of Arizona fans in McKale Center, that’s something that stays with you and it was a really, really great experience for me. Sometimes I joke with my close friends from back home and I always say those four years that I spent in Arizona, it felt like somebody put me in some magical place, like a different planet. It was really an experience.”
RK: What do you remember from Senior Day when you high-fived fans in the stands after the game and ripped off your jersey to unveil that famous Dusan Loves Tucson shirt?
DS: “That was my last game at home and I wasn’t really happy. I wasn’t ready to end my college career but I was thinking, ‘what should I do? How can I repay or say thank you to all the fans that supported me throughout my four years?’ Because even though it was 4 or 5,000 miles away from my house, I really felt like Tucson was my second home. And that’s the fan support and then everybody else around the program. So I just thought about a way of me saying thank you, and I didn’t want to copy anybody else before me. Like T.J. (McConnell) kissed the floor and some other players had speeches. I just wanted to keep it simple and just find the simplest possible way to say thank you to all the people that helped my experience at Arizona be the best.”
RK: Do you still have the Dusan Loves Tucson shirt?
DR: “Yes, I do. Before packing for this year, I actually went to my house in Serbia, Novi Sad. My mom was there and she takes care of all my gear, especially Arizona gear. And she was like, ‘let me show you something.’ And then she showed me the shirt and I was like, ‘wow, I forgot about it.’ I felt this was like 100 years ago, and it only was one year, so yeah my shirt is still in my home, so it will probably stay there forever. I think I’ll frame her one day when I have my house.”
RK: Aside from Senior Day, what other games stick out to you? I remember you saying at the time that the Utah game in your senior year (when you scored a career-high 23 points and made three big 3s) was your best.
DR: “There are a couple of games that I still remember that I really enjoyed. The Utah game like you mentioned, was one of the best because I had so much fun. I played really great. It was kind like when you work hard and sacrifice a lot, dedicate a lot of time, and then you finally see that’s paying off, that game was the ultimate example of that, everything was going my way. I think I made a 3 in the end. and I think we were up one, so I put the team in a position to win the game. And I just reached the 1,000-point mark after that 3, so a lot of details from that game kind of came together and made the whole experience just unbelievable. I still think about that period sometimes and it really, really makes me feel good.
“But there are some other good games as well. My freshman year, obviously I didn’t have a big role, but the home game against UCLA when I played really well.* That was probably one of the first games that I felt (I showed) the fans and everybody else what I can do.
“The Pac-12 Tournament, there were multiple games there. That was a great experience because you’re a few hours away from Tucson, and then you feel like you’re actually in Tucson with those fans. And my four years we won three tournaments there, which speaks for itself.”
*Ristic had 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting in a 57-47 win vs. UCLA
RK: What does it mean to you to be the winningest player in program history?
DR: “That stat is not something crazy. I feel it’s more a confirmation of all of my hard work and sacrifices that I made those four years and what can happen if you you know stick with one program for four years if you trust your coach and you trust your people around the program. It’s nothing more than that. I don’t see it as a great accomplishment. I see it more as a legacy of my career.”
RK: What is special about playing for Coach Sean Miller?
DR: “He always likes to say to his players, ‘I’m gonna hold the highest possible standard for you and if you don’t want it, you let me know.’ But I don’t think anybody ever said no. So when you come through his program, he’s gonna be 100 percent dedicated to you and to your personal development. It’s not gonna be easy. It’s gonna be a tough process. You’re gonna have to go out of your comfort zone, to be willing to change a lot of bad habits, but in the end everything pays off, and in the end everything proves that his program works. We have that saying Honor The Process and that speaks for itself. It’s an ultimate trust game. If you trust him, you’ll do well. But the moment you start questioning him, you might fail.”
RK: Why did you want to go to school in the United States in the first place?
DR: “One thing in Europe is that when you are a young and talented player, when you play at a high level, a lot of those teams, they’re competing for the championships, to win as much games as possible. They don’t dedicate a lot of time to development of young players. They don’t have time because we are always on the travel. We travel every week, play two games a week, and you don’t have a lot of time to actually work with those young players. So that was one of the reasons why I left. I felt like I wasn’t developing well.
“And people don’t realize it’s really hard to get a chance as a young player at a high level in Europe. We all know the example of (Luka) Doncic and some other players like (Kristaps) Porzingis, but those examples are super rare. Not a lot of players get a chance to compete at a high level in Europe because it really requires you to be dominant. And when you are 17- or 18-years-old and you play against 30-year-old vets, it’s really hard for you to dominate. So at that moment, I felt like I wasn’t developing the right way and I always knew that if I go through the whole college process, I can always come back to Europe. And that came to be true.”
RK: What do you miss most about Tucson and the U of A?
DR: “First, all the great people that I met there that I’m still in contact with. The university, I miss everything about it. You know, all the great facilities and the conditions that we had there. I miss the city. I like the weather. It was great to be in a city where 350 days a year you have sun. I actually appreciate that more now. The whole season in Russia there were days it was -15 degrees outside. It was snow all the time.
“I miss the food, I miss the Mexican food a lot. Guadalajara Grill was my go-to place. My last year when I returned to Belgrade, one of the first things that I did, I tried to find a good Mexican restaurant. And I actually found some. I actually found a few ones that are really close to original Mexican food. I found one place where I used to go twice a week and they had a Mexican chef, so that was cool. But then I came here and Astana is a huge city but they don’t have Mexican food, so that’s the thing I miss the most now.”
This article is part of an ongoing Q&A series that will highlight former UA student-athletes. The rest of the editions are linked below. If you are a former UA student-athlete and would like to participate, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Twitter at @RKelapire.