Jermaine Lawrence is close to making his return to the University of Cincinnati basketball team.

The 6-foot-9 freshman forward, who has not played since he suffered a turf toe injury on his left foot in the first half against Memphis on Jan. 4, was at practice Saturday without the protective boot that he has been wearing.

He won’t be on the Fifth Third Arena floor Sunday when the 13th-ranked Bearcats (20-2, 9-0 in the American Athletic Conference) face South Florida (11-10, 2-6) at noon, but it’s possible that he could return within a week.

“It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to,” Lawrence said. “It’s getting better day by day.”

Lawrence’s return would be a welcome development for a team that had been braced for the possibility that it would have to finish the season without him. UC coach Mick Cronin said on Jan. 14 there was a chance that Lawrence would be out for the rest of the season.

“As far as damage to his toe, it’s healed much quicker than we thought,” Cronin said. “They were concerned. I tell them to give me the worst-case scenario.

Lawrence went through a workout without incident after practice Friday. The concern now is getting the strength back in the rest of his foot.

“When you keep a guy in a boot for 20-plus days, his foot’s sore just because his foot has been in a boot,” Cronin said. “It’s a matter of slowly reactivating everything in his foot and then getting him through the soreness.”

UC, which brings a 13-game winning streak into the USF game, is off to its best start since the 2001-02 team went 26-2 on the way to a 31-4 record, setting the school record for wins in a season. The Bearcats’ win over Louisville on Thursday gave them their fourth straight 20-victory season, which hasn’t happened at UC since 2002.

Cronin would love to have Lawrence for the USF game because the Bulls, with a starting front line of 6-9, 6-7, 6-10, posed problems for UC in its 61-54 win in Tampa on Jan. 18. The Bearcats were outrebounded, 36-30, in that game and had to turn back repeated surges by USF to post the victory.

“Their size bothered us,” Cronin said. “They were athletic enough and they had enough size to bother us on the backboard. They got out on the break on us in the first half especially. This is a team that if they don’t turn it over, it’s hard for us to keep them off the backboard with their size and athleticism. It’s a tough matchup for us.”

Lawrence, who averages 4.2 points and 3.5 rebounds, would provide much-needed depth on the front line for UC, which has been playing with nine scholarship players since he was hurt.

“If you had told me that we would be on an undefeated run without him, I would have said, how? We don’t have enough size,” Cronin said. “But you underestimate the heart of the guys on our team. Shaq (Thomas) and Jermaine (Sanders) have elevated their play. That’s been the biggest reason. And David (Nyarsuk) has helped us. So that now when it looks like he’s going to make it back, hopefully you become a better team because these guys have more confidence.”

Lawrence said he has tried to make good use of his time on the bench.

“It’s hard but you get to learn the game watching everybody else play,” Lawrence said. “When I did it, I felt like I wasn’t going to come back for the rest of the season. But I’ll be back soon.”