Kelly Graves has fond memories of Spokane.
Before coming to Oregon in 2014, Graves spent the previous 14 years coaching Gonzaga and turned the Bulldogs from a basement-dweller to a national contender.
In just his fourth year at Oregon, he appears to have the Ducks on a similar trajectory, and this weekend he’ll return to Spokane with Elite Eight and Final Four aspirations in mind.
To get there, though, Graves and the Ducks have to go through 11th-seeded Central Michigan first. The two-seed Ducks play the Chippewas (30-4) on Saturday at 3 p.m. with a bid to the Elite Eight on the line.
Oregon (32-4) breezed through its first rounds of the tournament and won its first two games by an average of 36 points. But the Ducks are wary of Central Michigan.
During their first two rounds, the Chippewas have taken on themes similar to those that Oregon did last season when it won upsets in three straight rounds on its way to the Elite Eight. Central Michigan dispatched six-seeded LSU 78-69 in the first round on Saturday and shocked three-seeded Ohio State 95-78 on Monday to reach the Sweet 16 in Spokane.
“It was an upset in seedline only,” Graves said. “After watching them as much as I have, I’ll tell you, they’re really good.”
On top of their underdog role, the Chippewas are riding a hot streak. They’ve won 22 of their last 23 games with their last loss coming back on Feb. 14. To boot, all five of their starters average double-figures in scoring and are led by the duo of Tinara Moore (18.9 per game) and Presley Hudson (18.4).
“They’re a really scrappy team,” senior guard Lexi Bando said. “They play really hard and they’re playing like they have nothing to lose.”
Graves said that a good team with nothing to lose is what makes a team dangerous, and, as he put it, Central Michigan is “very dangerous.”
“They can all shoot it, they can all handle it, they can all pass it, they play unselfishly, they play really hard,” Graves said. “It’s a good team.”
But so is Oregon, a team whose experience as an underdog has the Ducks preparing for Central Michigan as if the Chippewas were the two-seed.
“The advantage we have though is we were that team last year,” Graves said. “Who knows if our competition in the second and third round gave us our due. We were able to sneak a win.
“We’re going to be ready, we won’t fall into that trap, that’s for sure.”