Doug McDermott had one of those monster games he’s been known for in helping Creighton beat California last season.
As good as McDermott was that night in Berkeley — he scored 34 points and grabbed nine rebounds — it was defense that turned the game in Creighton’s favor in the 74-64 victory.
And the Bluejays likely will need another intense defensive performance to duplicate that win when the teams meet at 6:07 p.m. Sunday at the CenturyLink Center.
“Our offense is always going to take care of itself — we’ll find ways to score,” Creighton guard Jahenns Manigat said. “Defense is always the key for us. If we show up the way we did against Nebraska and Pine Bluff, we’ll definitely give ourselves more chances to win that ballgame.
“If we don’t and let them hang around, it will become a tougher game down the stretch. We know we have to want to come out with a great defensive effort.”
Creighton held Nebraska to 25 points in the first half of a Dec. 8 win, then limited Arkansas-Pine Bluff to 22 in the first 20 minutes of a Dec. 17 victory. The two wins are part of the three-game winning streak the Bluejays (8-2) will take into the game against the Golden Bears (8-3).
California has lost its only true road game this season, falling 72-65 at UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 6. The Golden Bears’ other two losses came at the Maui Invitational when they faced Syracuse and Dayton without star forward Richard Solomon.
The 6-foot-10 Solomon, who averages a double-double (12.0 points, 10.6 rebounds) in the nine games he has played, joins 6-9 David Kravish to give California a solid frontcourt attack. Kravish ranks second on the team in scoring (12.4) and rebounding (8.7).
“Their front line is much improved,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Kravish is playing at a high level, and they’re looking to get the ball to Solomon more than they did a year ago.”
Senior Justin Cobbs runs the offense from the point, averaging a team-high 13.9 points along with 6.4 assists. Freshman Jabari Bird has started eight times but has come off the bench in the past two games. He’s averaging 11.9 points a game.
“Justin Cobbs will be one of the better guards we play against this season,” McDermott said. “They have some very talented young players that have had some big games for them in the early going. They have a lot of the pieces there.”
Cobbs led the Golden Bears with 18 points in last season’s loss to Creighton. He made 8 of 17 shots, but his teammates combined to go 19 of 61 from the field (31.1 percent). Overall, California shot 34.6 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from 3-point range in last season’s game.
It was Manigat who was mainly responsible for a nightmarish game by Golden Bears star Allen Crabbe. Manigat chased and harassed Crabbe into a 6-for-26 night from the field. He missed all eight of his shots from beyond the arc.
“It definitely was one of the more challenging games in my four years here,” Manigat said. “They ran so much stuff for him, and why not? I went into that game thinking I was going to have to limit his touches and make him catch the ball outside of his comfort zone.
“This year is a totally different story. They have other guys that are playing efficient basketball right now, and we have to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are and play to those.”
Crabbe is the only starter not back from California’s NCAA tournament team. He opted to leave school a year early for the NBA.
“They have a big core of their guys back, and we have a big core of our guys back,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “We remember and are familiar with each other. We went there and got one on their home court. Nothing would make them happier than to come here and get one from us.”
Creighton’s defensive numbers through its first 10 games have slipped a bit from last season, when the Bluejays wound up 83rd in scoring defense (63.2 points per game), 77th in field-goal percentage defense (.407) and 56th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.312).
This season, Creighton ranked 121st nationally to start last week in scoring defense (68.2 points per game), 91st in field-goal percentage defense (.409) and 165th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.335).
“We’re going to need the same kind of defensive effort against them that we had last year,” guard Avery Dingman said. “We’re not a team that’s talented enough to just roll the ball out there and beat other teams.
“We have to execute and play our game. When we do a good job of that, when we’re locked in, we’re all right.”