Panthers relish opportunity to host defending national champions


akeem Buckles, who transferred to FIU from Louisville, will face his former team for the first team on Dec. 21 at the U.S. Century Bank Arena.

Rakeem Buckles, who transferred to FIU from Louisville, will face his former team for the first team on Dec. 21 at the U.S. Century Bank Arena.

Never before has a defending national champion stepped into the U.S. Century Bank Arena to take on FIU. That won’t be the case anymore after Saturday.

On Dec. 21, the Panthers men’s basketball team will welcome the Louisville Cardinals – winners of last season’s NCAA Tournament – to the arena for a nationally televised contest. It is the most anticipated home game on the Panthers’ home schedule – and is expected to be one of the most highly attended home contests of the season.

“It’s a huge game because it’s something that we can draw on and it’s where you want your program to move toward,” said FIU Head Coach Anthony Evans. “We’re trying to move in that direction, toward being a top-level program.”

Playing against a team of Louisville’s caliber also gives the first-year Panthers coach the opportunity to truly gauge the team’s progress a month into the regular season.

“It’ll tell us where we are and where we need to get to,” Evans said.

The Panthers enter Saturday’s contest with an 8-4 record and have been particularly strong at home, winning five of their six home games including a 72-61 win over Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 7.

“We have to really come out and protect home court. That’s the great thing about playing this game at home because we’re great at home,” said redshirt junior guard Dennis Mavin.

Evans relishes the opportunity to coach against Cardinals Head Coach Rick Pitino, the only coach in NCAA history to ever take three different programs to the Final Four. Last season’s Louisville squad was the second time Pitino coached a team to a national championship, the other time was in 1996 when he won it all with Kentucky.

“Rick Pitino is a legend in the game of basketball and it’s an honor to play against them and to draw upon some of the things that they’ve done with their program,” Evans said.

FROM RECOVERY TO REUNION

There is one player of the Panthers roster who has a firsthand perspective on Louisville’s storied success and Pitino’s coaching chops: forward Rakeem Buckles.

Buckles, a redshirt senior, transferred to the Panthers from Louisville after three seasons under Rick Pitino. Upon reflection, Buckles described playing under the legendary coach as an honor and looks forward to having the opportunity to play against him and some of his former teammates.

“I want to win and it’s a great opportunity to play against a great team and we’re hoping to come out with a victory,” Buckles said. “Those guys know where I’m at and I don’t feel like I have to prove anything.”

The 6-7 forward has made an immediate impact on the floor this season for the Panthers, averaging 14.7 points and a team-best 10.5 rebounds per contest.

His path to FIU, though, was one filled with injuries and lengthy rehabs. After season-ending knee injuries cut his sophomore and junior seasons at Louisville short, he came to FIU when Pitino’s son and Louisville assistant coach Richard Pitino accepted the Panthers’ head coaching role in 2012.

After sitting out the 2012-2013 season to make a full recovery from his torn ACL, he quickly emerged as a formidable presence in the paint for the Panthers and is glad to be playing and contributing on the court.

“A lot people go through a lot of surgeries and they’re not able to play the game the way they want to,” Buckles said. “I’m just happy to be here and I’m very grateful to be playing.”

Admission to FIU men’s basketball games is FREE for all FIU students. Single-game tickets can be purchased by calling the FIU Ticket Office at 305-FIU-GAME, or by logging onto www.FIUSports.com.