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Miami Hurricanes happy to be dancing again in NCAA Tournament

Jim Larranaga stood up, turned around and faced the bubbling crowd. Fingers pressed to his lips, he let out a piercing whistle.

“When they announce our name, go crazy,” he shouted to about 200 fans.

They were happy to oblige.

After a two-year absence from the NCAA tournament, the Hurricanes (25-7) are dancing again. They take their first step in Providence, R.I., as a No. 3 seed in the South region. Their partner is 14th-seeded Buffalo (20-14), who they’ll meet at 6:50 p.m. Thursday.

Seeing their name on the big-screen TV made Hurricanes players sitting together on a couch throw their hands in the air and bounce in their seats.

“This is why you coach, to enjoy the accomplishments of your players,” Larranaga said. “The Big Dance is where you want to be dancing, and you want to dance a lot.”

The Canes, who reached the NIT final last year, are in the NCAAs for the first time since 2012-13 and the eighth time in program history.

“This year’s team is really special,” said center Tonye Jekiri, a senior and the only remaining player from the 2012-13 Sweet 16 squad. “We’ve really taken it one game at a time.”

Miami’s region includes top-seeded Kansas (30-4) and second-seeded Villanova (29-5). Should the Hurricanes win their opener, they will face either Arizona or the winner of Tuesday’s Vanderbilt-Wichita State play-in game. Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games are in Louisville.

By Thursday, they could be the only Florida-based team left. To earn a No. 16 seed, Florida Gulf Coast (20-13) needs to beat Farleigh Dickinson (18-14) at 6:40 p.m. Tuesday in Dayton. The winner gets top-seeded North Carolina in the East region.

Florida (19-14) and Florida State (19-13) will play in the NIT. The Gators are a 2-seed and will travel to North Florida (22-11) because of renovations to the O’Connell Center. The game is 9 p.m. Tuesday. The Seminoles, a 4-seed, will host Davidson (20-12) Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Hurricanes players, coaches, staff and fans watched Sunday’s announcement on a big-screen TV at The Rathskeller restaurant on campus, which was decked out with orange, green and white balloons. The scene was the opposite of last year, when the team watched the selection show in a conference room. They were hopeful, but nervous after losing several bad games in December.

“Last year was like a funeral. Literally, a funeral. I was quiet the whole time,” guard Angel Rodriguez recalled.

Sunday, when they heard their name called, it was “excitement,” guard Sheldon McClellan said. “Joy. Definitely one of the best feelings ever.” Jekiri was “dancing and cheering” with his teammates. “It’s going to be so much fun,” he said. “We’re going to play loose and make the best of it.”

Said Larranaga: “One was agony, the other was glee. … There was a very strong commitment from our players not to let that happen again.”

After playing the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., one of the stops on George Mason’s Larranaga-led 2006 Final Four run, the coach will experience another happy homecoming this week.

From 1968-71, he was a standout scorer at Providence College. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1991. He never played in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, which was built in 1972, but he knows the city inside and out.

“I think it’ll be a great venue, a great crowd,” said Larranaga, whose program last played in Providence in an NIT game in 2009. “I think Buffalo will probably have more fans than we will. But we’ve got a very good team, a team that’s capable of making a lot of noise this March.”

The Hurricanes are 8-3 against this year’s field of 68. Their losses came to Virginia (twice) and North Carolina, both of which earned No. 1 seeds. UM beat tournament teams in Notre Dame (twice), Virginia, Duke, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Butler and Utah.

Players didn’t know much about Buffalo, which has won the last two MAC championships. Rodriguez, a self-described “college basketball junkie,” was the only one who had seen the Bulls play this year. Miami has faced Buffalo three times, winning on the road in 1993 and at home in 1996, and losing at a neutral site in 2006. The Bulls play at a breakneck pace, led by point guard Lamonte Bearden.

“The matchup I could honestly care less about,” junior guard Davon Reed said. “No disrespect to Buffalo. I’m just excited to be in the tournament. It doesn’t matter who we play or where we play. Just happy to be in, man.”

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