March 18, 2015

AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) Bobby Hurley casually slips the big shiny ring off the finger of his right hand and offers it to someone to hold.

''Kind of heavy, right?'' Hurley says, referring to the gleaming gold keepsake topped with a large gem-encrusted No. 1 set on upon a Duke Blue-colored background.

This, of course, is the ring Hurley and his Blue Devils' teammates were awarded in 1992 after winning consecutive NCAA Tournament championships. And it's one Hurley kept in storage until shortly after opening his second season as Buffalo's coach in November.

''I started at the Kentucky game with it. It was the first time I wore it as coach,'' Hurley said, referring to a 71-52 loss to the top-ranked Wildcats in Buffalo's third game of the season.

''I felt like I need a little something extra in that game to go in there with a little more confidence playing a team like that,'' he said. ''And so I decided to keep with it the rest of the year.''

Lucky charm or not, Hurley will be wearing that ring in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, when his Midwest Region's 12th-seeded Bulls (23-9), make their tournament debut facing fifth-seeded West Virginia (23-9).

The national setting is a familiar one for Hurley, who established his reputation as one of college basketball's most accomplished point guards by leading the Blue Devils to three consecutive Final Four appearances.

It's the role that is entirely new for the 43-year-old who has quickly dispelled the notion that he lacked the experience to succeed in lifting a Mid-American Conference program to any semblance of national prominence.

Two years in, Hurley has a 42-19 record in becoming Buffalo's fastest coach to get to 40 wins. The Bulls have won the East Division regular-season title in each of the past two seasons. And after losing their two other MAC Tournament championship appearances in 2005 and 2009, the Bulls finally broke through with an 89-84 win over Central Michigan on Saturday.

Hurley's immediate success has impressed even some of his biggest supporters, including Buffalo athletic director Danny White.

''Not in a million years did I think he'd win a championship after two years. Unbelievable,'' White said. ''I think this brings us to a whole `nother level of legitimacy. We've made it.''

After firing Reggie Witherspoon, a popular coach who spent 13-plus seasons in Buffalo, White took a calculated risk in hiring Hurley, who had name recognition, but little coaching experience.

Hurley had spent a decade-long self-imposed exile from basketball. His NBA career ended in 1998, because of lingering pain and injuries that resulted from a near-fatal car crash early into his rookie season with Sacramento in 1993.

Hurley finally returned to the sport he loved in 2010 as an assistant under his brother Dan Hurley at Staten Island's Wagner College. The two spent two years at Wagner, before spending a season together at Rhode Island.

Bobby Hurley's lack of actual coaching experience didn't mean he didn't have grooming. He has a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach for a father, Bob Sr., who has built a perennial powerhouse of a program at New Jersey's St. Anthony's High School. And Hurley played under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

''He was sitting in on basketball conversations with coaches when he was six and seven years old,'' Hurley's father said. ''People that didn't know whether he was going to do a good job or not didn't really know his pedigree, and didn't know how quickly he could relate to players.''

Bobby Hurley's hair might be speckled with gray, but he certainly has won over his players.

He has the Bulls playing an up-tempo, aggressive style that emphasizes play-making. He's picked up some slang, which he uses during pep talks. And then there's the impromptu jig Hurley broke into amid his players in the locker room shortly after winning the title last weekend.

''I think he's still a kid at heart,'' forward Justin Moss said. ''He wants to play with us. Sometimes, he gets himself involved in practice running though plays.''

Hurley feels rejuvenated and regards Buffalo's tournament berth as his most special.

''I was spoiled when I played at Duke. It's almost your birthright to go,'' Hurley said. ''This was one of the top moments that I've had in sports because a big part of leading a team is just moments like that when you see the enjoyment.''

Better than even a ring, perhaps.

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