University of Miami

UM vows not to take Buffalo lightly in NCAA Tournament opener

UM coach Jim Larrañaga talks with Angel Rodriguez during a game against Virginia’s in the semifinals of the 2016 ACC Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Friday, March 11, 2016.
UM coach Jim Larrañaga talks with Angel Rodriguez during a game against Virginia’s in the semifinals of the 2016 ACC Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Friday, March 11, 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The three rivers that flow through downtown here will burst into 100 fires just above the surface Friday night for the annual public art phenomenon called WaterFire.

The University of Miami, in town for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, can only hope it’ll be just as fired up for Thursday night’s game against the University of Buffalo at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

UM, which is 25-7 and ended the season tied for the No. 10 ranking with Kentucky in The Associated Press poll, is seeded third in the South Region and is a heavy favorite over No. 14 seed Buffalo, which won back-to-back Mid-American Conference tournament championships. The Hurricanes are No. 8 in the RPI and the Bulls are No. 91. Buffalo is just 1-7 against Top 50 RPI teams.

Some experts are predicting the Canes will advance to the Elite Eight.

But Hurricanes senior guard Angel Rodriguez insists they are not taking their first opponent lightly.

“There are no little games anymore,” he said. “Those guys are going to come in and try to take our heads off. This should be quote unquote the easiest game as a high seed, but that’s when a lot of teams take it for granted, overlook the opponent completely, start thinking about who they’re going to play in the Sweet 16. Nothing’s guaranteed.”

UM coach Jim Larrañaga feels right at home in this city, having spent four years playing at Providence College from 1968-71. He graduated as the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer. A longtime fan showed up at UM’s practice on Wednesday and unearthed a trading card from Larrañaga’s playing days, back when he had sideburns, wore short shorts and was known as “Larry.”

Coach L still craves the “AwfulAwful’’ milkshake at the Newport Creamery. “Awful thick, awful good,” Larrañaga said Wednesday, smiling. “When I was at Providence College, I didn’t have any money to go eat at a fancy restaurant. I lived on those shakes.”

There are no little games anymore. Those guys are going to come in and try to take our heads off.

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But Larrañaga doesn’t have much time for nostalgia. The Hurricanes are about to run into a Buffalo team that is talented, plays at a breakneck pace, loves to shoot threes, is hungry and emotionally charged after dealing with tragedy during the season.

The wife of Bulls first-year coach Nate Oats was diagnosed with lymphoma in October. Crystal Oats underwent her final chemotherapy session last week and is scheduled for a bone marrow transplant next month. When the Bulls won the MAC title on Saturday, the coach’s wife was the last to climb the ladder and clip off a piece of the net as the players chanted her name.

The team also dealt with the deaths of the brother of associate head coach Jim Whitesell and the mother of freshman Nikola Rakicevic.

Buffalo had suffered a major blow after last season, when following their first conference title and NCAA trip coach and Duke legend Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State. He took star guard Shannon Evans with him. Then, in August, returning MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss was expelled from school for stealing $650 from a dorm room.

Through it all, the Bulls have stuck together under Oats.

“It has made us tougher as a team,’’ Blake Hamilton said. “We kind of feed off the energy of Coach Oats. And he’s a tough guy. For him to still even be coaching us after everything he’s gone through with his family, it just shows how much of a great guy he is. We kind of strive to play for his family and for Coach Oats after all the stuff he’s been through.”

Oats explained that he kept his phone with him at all times in case of emergency, got help from family and learned to “compartmentalize stuff, come to the office, deal with it.” He said his team grew stronger by “dealing with stuff a lot bigger than winning and losing.”

The Bulls are loose, with seemingly no pressure.

“We’re definitely the underdogs, kind of playing with house money right now,” Oats said. “The way you pull an upset is you come in loose, you hit a lot of shots. You play defense. Hopefully, Miami is the one that gets a little tight. They’re supposed to win. They have to make every shot. We’ll play a little looser than them, hopefully.”

But he knows the Canes will be ready.

“Coach Larrañaga does an unbelievable job,’’ Oats said. “I don’t think they’ll take us lightly, seeing that he took George Mason to the Final Four. He knows what a mid-major program can do in the tournament, since he did it himself.”

Michelle Kaufman: 305-376-3438, @kaufsports

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