The Cardinals nearly pulled off another road upset Wednesday at Notre Dame, but fell to the No. 8 Irish 89-79 in overtime. Now, Louisville gets two key frontcourt players back for a key matchup against the 13th-ranked Orange.
"They're both in need of conditioning, timing and execution, but it's great to have them back," Pitino said. "Now we can start trying to improve as a basketball team. I believe they'll both be able to play. How much I'm not sure."
Buckles, who missed Louisville's first 11 Big East games with a broken left index finger, should give the Cardinals a major lift on the backboard. Louisville ranks 12th in rebounding in the Big East, and Buckles averaged 7.5 rebounds per game before injury forced him to the sideline.
"I would say he's about a week away from being in good basketball shape," Pitino said.
Buckles returned to practice Thursday, but had been running on the treadmill, riding the bicycle and doing suicides to keep in shape while his broken finger healed."But I'm still not in great basketball shape to play a lot of minutes," Buckles. "I might not be able to knock to down shots, but I'm going to try to rebound."
Buckles hasn't played since Louisville's win over Morgan State Dec. 27. He was injured the day before the Cardinals Dec. 31 game against Kentucky. He'll have on a protective finger sleeve during the game.
"It's still a little swollen," Buckles said. "It feels fine. Of course when you go out there you're going to be thinking about someone smacking down on you, but I'm just going out there and playing. I'm happy to be dressed and my team. I don't know how good I'm going to be, but I'm going to play hard."
Louisville won 7 of 11 Big East games without Buckles in the lineup, but the 6-8 forward believes his absence cost the Cardinals in their four conference defeats.
"Every game they lost I'd be down a few days thinking it was my fault," Buckles said. "That's the sad part about me being out is I thought it was my fault when we lost."
Pitino believes Buckles will make an immediate impact on the court for Louisville.
"It's not going to bother Rock mentally or physically," Pitino said. "He's going to get in there. He was dunking the ball with both hands in individual instruction. He's a very tough individual and he's dying to get back."
Syracuse, which lost four straight Big East games, has won two of their past three games, though the Orange are coming off a 64-56 loss to Georgetown. One of the top defensive teams in the country, Syracuse ranks sixth nationally in blocked shots and 18th in field goal percentage.
"Syracuse is a powerful basketball team up front," Pitino said. "They've got great size at the guard spot and they're zone bothers a lot of different people. They rely on Rick Jackson getting great position and they cause problems for everybody."
Louisville beat Syracuse twice last season. The Cardinals beat the Orange 66-60 in Syracuse, then knocked off the Orange 78-68 in the final game at Freedom Hall.
1986 NCAA Champs Celebrate 25th AnniversaryThe University of Louisville's 1986 NCAA Championship team will be recognized at halftime of the Cardinals' Feb. 12 game against Syracuse in the KFC Yum! Center on this silver anniversary year of the achievement. The current U of L team will wear retro uniforms for the Syracuse game in the style worn by the 1986 team.
A commemorative poster, sponsored by United Graphics, will be provided to fans in attendance at the game. Prior to the game, members of the team will be available for autographs in the Woodford Reserve Club (main concourse level overlooking the river) from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Following the game, the team will visit T.G.I. Friday's restaurant (415 S Fourth Street) in Fourth Street Live to sign autographs and mingle with U of L fans from 3:30-5 p.m.
The 1985-86 Cardinals, who posted a 32-7 overall record, were guided by future Hall of Fame Coach Denny Crum and featured four starters that currently rank among the top 11 scorers all-time at U of L: Pervis Ellison (2,143 career points), Milt Wagner (1,836), Herbert Crook (1,723) and Billy Thompson (1,685). Starting guard Jeff Hall is also a career 1,000-point scorer (1,294). Louisville defeated Duke 72-69 in the title game and Ellison became the second freshman in NCAA history to be named the Most Outstanding Player after producing 25 points and 11 rebounds against the Blue Devils.