March 16, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) Whatever happens this week, the one thing Miami is vowing not to do is take being back in this year's NCAA Tournament for granted.

The South Region's third seed, the Hurricanes (25-7) return to the tournament for the first time since 2013, and are coming off a humbling trip to the NIT after late-season losses evaporated their NCAA hopes.

It makes their first-round matchup with 14th seed Buffalo (20-14) a chance to show how much they've grown since then.

''I think it's a great feeling for me and my teammates,'' senior center Tonye Jekiri said. ''I mean, being here my freshman year, it was really exciting, being around with the great seniors we had. And these tournaments are so amazing, and being with these guys and me being a senior and enjoying this moment together, it's a blessing to us.''

The Bulls, fresh off their second straight Mid-American Conference title, come in equally motivated after surviving a string off the court adversity this season.

It started in October when coach Nate Oats' wife, Crystal Oats, was diagnosed with cancer. Assistant coach Jim Whitesell's brother passed away in December, and freshman forward Nikola Rakicevic's mother died last month.

It's made making their second consecutive tournament appearance count a priority in a game Oats acknowledged they are a heavy underdog.

''We're definitely underdogs,'' he said. ''If you come into a game like this tight, that doesn't help anything. Kind of playing with house money right now.

''We're going to give it our best effort. If we hit some shots like we did in the MAC tournament, we're going to have a shot at it.''

Here are some more things to watch in Thursday's matchup between Buffalo and Miami

PLAYING FAST: Buffalo has played some of its best basketball this season in fast-paced, up-and-down games. The Bulls have also utilized the 3-pointer well, connecting on 35 in their three MAC tournament games. Oats said his team likely could not win a slowdown game, and he wants his team to continue to play loose offensively.

''We want to play up-tempo,'' junior swingman Blake Hamilton said. ''We want to create turnovers. We want to play at a fast pace. We feel like we're better when we're in transition, and if it's an up-tempo game, I really like our chances.''

MR. MOTIVATION: Miami coach Jim Larranaga has a reputation of utilizing different methods to motivate his teams. After its selection was announced for this year's tournament he called on friend and sports psychologist Bob Rotella to speak with them.

Larranaga also had Rotella speak to his 2006 George Mason prior to it making a Cinderella run to the Final Four.

''It was definitely a lot of motivation,'' senior guard Sheldon McClellan said. ''He basically just told us to be confident when we go out there on the court, believe in ourselves, don't believe in the other team. If you believe in the other team, there's no point of playing.''

PROVIDENCE MAN: Being back in Providence for the tournament has special significance for Larranaga, a 1971 Providence College graduate. The former basketball team captain said it was always a goal of his to return Providence's head coach one day, and said it nearly happened twice. He interviewed for the job in 1985, but it went to Rick Pitino. Then, while he was still at George Mason in 2008, officials came to his house to try to lure him back.

''I was very, very torn,'' Larranaga said of the 2008 courting. ''I came very, very close to accepting the position and would have been very, very excited to be the head coach here... but eventually I had to make the decision based on family responsibilities to stay at George Mason.''

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The AP's college basketball page: www.collegebasketball.ap.org

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