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Miami, Buffalo not taking NCAA Tournament berths for granted

After last year’s trip to the NIT, Miami center Tonye Jekiri says the team’s return to the NCAA Tournament is “a blessing to us.”

Associated Press

After last year’s trip to the NIT, Miami center Tonye Jekiri says the team’s return to the NCAA Tournament is “a blessing to us.”

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Whatever happens this week, the one thing Miami is vowing not to do is take being back in the NCAA Tournament for granted.

The South Region's third seed, the Hurricanes 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 a chance to show how much they've grown.

"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 of adversity.

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

So making their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance count is a priority.

"We're definitely underdogs," Oats 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."

Buffalo has been at its best in fast-paced, up-and-down games. The Bulls have also utilized the 3-pointer well, hitting 35 in their three MAC tournament games. Oats said his team likely won't win a slowdown game, and he wants it to continue to play loose offensively.

"We want to play uptempo," 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 uptempo game, I really like our chances."

Miami is relying on its superior skill, and it has a master motivator in coach Jim Larranaga.

After the Hurricanes' selection was announced, Larranaga called on friend and sports psychologist Bob Rotella to speak with his players. Larranaga also had Rotella speak to his 2006 George Mason team before its 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."

Miami, Buffalo not taking NCAA Tournament berths for granted 03/16/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 16, 2016 10:07pm]
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