In just the second week of the Pac-12 season for the Arizona men’s basketball team, in the midst of a tight battle against Colorado, senior center Dusan Ristic was melting down. After missing multiple scoring attempts from point blank range, Ristic was pulled from the game, walked over to the sideline and as he sat down uttered the words in his homeland Serbian accent, “Fuck me!”
The reaction to his own poor play was honest, but his efforts since then have been nothing short of remarkable. Ristic has gone from an afterthought to a key cog for the Wildcats in the span of two months.
His choice of words in that brief moment up in Boulder were as real as it gets from a senior who has been under fire the majority of his career, the unfortunate byproduct of being a seven-footer. Ristic is as genuine and raw of a person you could ever meet. What you see is what you get from the former four-star recruit out of Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.
What is more impressive about Ristic is his sense of calmness and authenticity despite the firestorm that surrounded him. Nothing has showcased that more than in the two weeks prior to the Pac-12 tournament when the men’s basketball program was seemingly on the brink of disarray, on the verge of not only losing one of their star players in Allonzo Trier due to ineligibility from a banned substance, but also their head coach Sean Miller from an ESPN report alleging his seeking of $100,000 for star player Deandre Ayton in 2017.
“It was tough, it was really tough,” said Ristic. “Obviously we lost our coach and we lost Allonzo on the Oregon trip — that was a completely new thing for all of us. We didn’t know how to react, we didn’t know what to do … This team showed great resiliency, even though there was a lot of negative energy around our program. I think we showed how tough we are … we’re just mentally tougher.”
Career highs in points, rebounds, free throw percentage and minutes per game landed Ristic a second team All-Pac-12 selection for the first time in his career. His play in the conference tournament was just as solid, leading to an All-Tournament team selection.
The path for Ristic hasn’t been easy. From Serbia to Kansas to Arizona, Ristic’s journey has been unusual. Throw in the language obstacles and a head coach that is as fiery as anyone in the country, and things can change from sunny to gloomy in an instant. But Ristic hasn’t opted for the easy way out like other young players have in search of “better” opportunities elsewhere. He has stuck through the process no matter how bad it seemed.
Ristic is unassuming, evidenced by his tall 7-foot-1 figure scrunching into a tiny Jeep Liberty as he drives down 1 National Championship Blvd. in front of McKale Center. There is nothing that stands out about Ristic outside of his height and, perhaps, the one thing that separates him from everyone else on his team: the triangle.
Ristic’s signature triangle gesture after key baskets has become endearing to the Arizona faithful. It is a requirement, of sorts, following Ristic plays. The legacy of winning the most games at Arizona is his, but March and April are where legends are made. Ristic will have the opportunity to cement his status as Wildcat folk hero with each game in the NCAA Tournament.
This is the beauty of Ristic, a man who has found himself playing the best basketball of his career at just the right time. He has gone through battles both internally and externally and done it under the watchful eye of Miller, a relationship that Ristic credits for making him who he is today.
“I thought about it and I was sad; I didn’t know what to expect,” Ristic said in reference to Miller’s game suspendsion. “Coach Miller is somebody who has been my coach the past four years. I’ve been through a lot of positive and negative things with him. I grew as a player off the court and on the court and if he wasn’t on the sidelines today or Saturday that would affect me a lot, because obviously that is a highly emotional thing.”
The winningest player in program history, Ristic is looking forward to March, and said he thinks the road this team has taken this season will propel them to greater things down the road. The team’s performance during the Pac-12 tournament would also say as much.
In the past five games, the Wildcats have given up just under 64 points a game after averaging over 72 per game in the 29 games prior. That focus on defense, a result of senior leadership from Ristic and longtime teammate Parker Jackson-Cartwright, it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
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