Creighton vs. DePaul: Big East hoops takes center stage on Christmas Day

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For the first time in conference history, Big East basketball takes place on Christmas Day, and you can watch it on FOX.

Following the Packers-Dolphins game at 1:00 PM ET on Sunday, a preseason top-10 Creighton team will host DePaul at 4:30 PM ET in Omaha, Neb.

The idea for this matchup began in the spring at the Big East coaches meetings when Creighton’s Greg McDermott agreed to host the Christmas Day showcase.

“Our guys are excited about the national spotlight and we have some of the best fans in the country,” said McDermott, who has led the Bluejays to three NCAA Tournament victories in the past two years. “We’re going to have great crowds even over the holidays because our fans are so passionate and our guys are going to have as many family members as we can get out here. It’s going to be fun.”

On the visitors’ side, DePaul head coach Tony Stubblefield and athletic director DeWayne Peevy were intrigued by the potential of a nationally televised game for a program trying to elevate its brand. Peevy, who worked closely with John Calipari while serving as an executive associate at Kentucky, understands the value of programming and broadcast opportunities.

The Jays, who were considered by many to be preseason Final Four contenders, got off to a 6-0 start and advanced to the Maui Invitational title game. But a loss to Arizona in Hawaii started an unexpected six-game skid that saw junior star Ryan Kalkbrenner sit out three games. On Thursday night, the 7-foot-1 center returned to McDermott’s lineup and adequately fueled Creighton with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting in a 78-56 win over Butler.

On the other hand, Stubblefield has not been able to get DePaul to turn a corner in his second season. Although the Blue Demons have been battered by injuries, a loss to Duquesne followed by a 38-point loss at the hands of Northwestern is discouraging. The Ray Meyer days are long gone, and the Blue Demons’ NCAA tournament drought dating back to 2004 looks set to continue.

DePaul will try to take on the role of the Grinch and spoiler on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, the game feels like a “must win” for Creighton. While the hot start was big for the Bluejays, the six-game slide put them back in the bubble conversation entering Big East play. The win over Butler was encouraging, and with back-to-back home games against DePaul and Seton Hall, the Jays need to keep racking up wins.

Here are three things to watch out for in this Big East matchup:

The Blue Demons have to play Javan Johnson i United Gibson

DePaul’s leading scoring duo has combined for more than 30 points per game, and Stubblefield will need even more to get out of Omaha with a win. More than anything, the Devils need to control the style of play and get a quality look. The reason they are successful? First of all, they are grown men. Gibson, a transfer from Oklahoma, is 24 years old. Johnson, who spent much of last season getting hit and flew under the radar entering the season, has 23. Johnson’s scoring prowess has changed the game for the Blue Demons when it comes to cooking. In DePaul’s six wins, the 6-foot-6 wing is averaging 22.6 PPG.

Javan Johnson leads DePaul over Minnesota

Javan Johnson leads DePaul over Minnesota

Creighton’s key is perimeter shooting

Creighton has long been known as an outstanding 3-point shooting team under McDermott, but this year’s group has not thrived in that area. The Bluejays have relied too much on the 3-point shot during the team’s six-game losing streak, and that has led to some tough shot selections. It’s strange to see the Jays in the back half of the Big East at just over 34% downtown.

In Thursday’s win over Butler, Kalkbrenner and Ryan Nembhard made some open shots from deep, which opened things up and allowed the offense to strike a nice balance with four scorers in double figures. The Jays shot 8-for-16 from downtown against the Dawgs. Can this lead to improved efficiency from deep?

Ryan Kalkbrenner scored 24 against North Dakota

Ryan Kalkbrenner scored 24 against North Dakota

The Scheierman Effect in the Jays’ backcourt

Baylor Scheierman is one of college basketball’s must-have players. A South Dakota State transfer who caught the attention of major programs last offseason, the Nebraska native chose to return home and don a Bluejays uniform for the final chapter of the his college basketball career.

The 6-foot-7 star is averaging 12.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game while ranking in the top four in the Big East with 2.6 3-pointers per outing.

Scheierman isn’t the only talented player on Creighton’s perimeter. It’s important for the Bluejays’ sophomore duo of Nembhard and Trey Alexander to coexist and find a rhythm offensively. Both have had their ups and downs this season, and I think what they end up being together as the year goes on could determine the ultimate ceiling for the Jays.

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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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