The last thing Creighton basketball players can afford to have is visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads with California coming to town three days before Christmas.
The Bluejays know the Golden Bears are a different animal than the three teams — Long Beach State, Nebraska and Arkansas-Pine Bluff — that Creighton has hammered in building a three-game winning streak.
California is 8-3 and expected to contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament in March. Creighton coach Greg McDermott likes the idea of facing a team as talented as the Golden Bears with the holidays, not to mention the start of conference play, looming.
“I think having a good opponent, your guys have less of a chance to have one foot out the door on their way home for a few days,” said McDermott, who plans to give his players two-plus days off after Sunday’s game at the CenturyLink Center.
“Our guys know they have to be locked in and prepared to play a team like Cal as opposed to playing a team that everyone thinks you’re going to beat. I think we have the players’ attention.”
Creighton stands 8-2 heading into its final two nonconference games of the season. The Bluejays will begin their first season of Big East play after facing California and Chicago State on Dec. 29.
Sunday’s game will pit Creighton against a team that features a pair of talented big men in Richard Solomon and David Kravish, a slick point guard in Justin Cobbs and a highly regarded newcomer in freshman Jabari Bird.
Two of the Golden Bears’ three losses came to No. 2 Syracuse and Dayton at the Maui Invitation when they were without Solomon, who is averaging 12.0 points and 10.6 rebounds in the nine games he has played.
“This game is going to be a lot closer to what we’re going to see on a daily basis,” Creighton guard Avery Dingman said. “They’re really physical and play a big lineup.
“Richard Solomon and Kravish are big, so it’s going to be important for us to force a few outside shots and make sure we get bodies on them in order to rebound.”
Solomon, Kravish and Cobbs were key contributors a season ago when California posted a 21-12 record, including going 1-1 in the NCAA tournament. The Golden Bears also made the NCAA field in 2012.
They lost only leading scorer Allen Crabbe, the 31st overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, from the starting lineup. With four starters back, California has its sights set on a third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“This is an NCAA tournament team, and we have to make sure we’re getting ourselves ready to go,” forward Ethan Wragge said. “If we want to be ready for the NCAA tournament come the end of the year, we have to play well against these kind of teams. It’s a good gauge for us.”
It also will be a good tuneup for the start of Big East play, which begins Dec. 31 with a home game against preseason favorite Marquette.
“Preparing for a team like Cal will help us in the Big East,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “We feel like our league can have three or four teams make the NCAA tournament.
“Any time we can play someone from outside our league that has a chance to make the tournament, we relish that opportunity. We have to take advantage of it.”
Creighton did last season with a 74-64 win on the Golden Bears’ court. Bluejays star forward Doug McDermott scored 34 points in the win, while Manigat played a key role in holding Crabbe to 14 points on 6 of 26 shooting.
Creighton relished the win because of its big-picture ramifications that also will be in play in Sunday’s game.
“This is a game that could pay dividends for you later,” Greg McDermott said. “Had we not won the conference tournament last season and gotten the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, that win would have been on the right side of the ledger in terms of being a quality win.”
Notes: California will be just the second Pac-12 team Creighton has played at the CenturyLink Center. The other was Oregon, which visited Omaha for the opening game of the 2011 College Basketball Invitational. The Bluejays have not played a regular-season home game against an active Pac-12 school since Oregon State visited the Civic Auditorium in 1978 ... Doug McDermott needs 31 points to reach the 2,500-point mark. Only 63 men in NCAA history have scored at least 2,500 points ... The Bluejays have won seven straight home games and have trailed just 8 minutes and 6 seconds during the victories. In four home games this season, Creighton has trailed just 5:52 of 200 minutes.