- Associated Press - Saturday, February 12, 2011

LOUISVILLE, KY. (AP) - Rick Pitino walked onto the practice floor on Thursday and couldn’t quite believe what he saw: more than a dozen healthy players on the court.

It’s a rare sight for the injury-ravaged Cardinals, who have somehow remained competitive in the Big East despite a bench that’s had almost as many players in street clothes as jerseys and shorts in recent weeks.

Pitino expects power forward Rakeem Buckles and freshman center Gorgui Dieng to be available on Saturday when 16th-ranked Louisville (18-6, 7-4 Big East) hosts 12th-ranked Syracuse (20-5, 7-5).

Buckles hasn’t played since Dec. 27 after breaking his left index finger in practice while Dieng has sat out the past four games following a nasty spill in a win over West Virginia on Jan. 26.

The reinforcements couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cardinals, who looked exhausted in overtime in a loss to No. 8 Notre Dame on Wednesday.

Louisville had a chance to win it at the end of regulation but missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds then let the Irish score the first 14 points of the extra session.

“I think our guys are really tired mentally after losing that game,” Pitino said. “They were very disappointed in themselves.”

Their coach, however, was not. Pitino has remained upbeat all season, knowing his team is overachieving. The injuries have forced him to get creative with the lineups, with surprising results. He doesn’t expect there to be an adjustment period with Buckles returning, crediting his players for being so adaptable.

“Chemistry is always going to be great with this team,” Pitino said. “Gorgui and Rak are guys that are not only low maintenance, no ego, very humble people, but everybody was rooting for them to get back. The attitude and chemistry are always going to be there. Now it’s the execution.”

Buckles called the weeks watching helplessly from the bench in a black sweat suit unbearable. He was the team’s leading rebounder at the time of the injury (7.5 per game) but went more than a month without even touching a basketball to give the five pins inserted in his broken finger time to go to work.

He’ll wear a sleeve and some tape over the digit against the Orange but doesn’t believe it will hinder his ability to grab the ball with both hands or shoot. Even if it did, he admits he probably wouldn’t tell anybody.

“It was something, worst part of my life, sitting and watching,” Buckles said. “I knew we were winning but it still hurts.”

The losses were even worse.

“Every game we’d lose, I’d be down for a few days thinking it’s my fault, feeling like if I’d have played we would have won,” Buckles said.

Louisville thrived in his absence even though Pitino allows he “kept waiting for the bottom to fall out.”

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