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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Jim Boeheim knelt in front of Fab Melo on the Syracuse bench and spoke softly after his 7-foot freshman center had been called for his third foul in less than 4 minutes against Cincinnati.
Whatever was said seemed to have an impact. Melo eventually returned, had six points and four blocks in 15 minutes, and didn't commit another foul in the fourth-ranked Orange's 67-52 victory over the No. 25 Bearcats on Saturday.
Melo couldn't wait to board the plane for Monday night's showdown at Pittsburgh (17-1, 5-0) for first place in the Big East.
"Coach wants me to block shots and play defense," Melo said. "I felt very comfortable out there today. I think I'll be even better the next game."
Although he's started every game of the season, Melo had been more of a spectator of late, his effervescent smile replaced by a studious scowl as he sat and watched his teammates play. He had logged just 28 minutes in his first four Big East games, scoring only three points and failing to block a shot until Saturday.
"We needed that from Fab today, and I think he needed it, too," guard Scoop Jardine said. "It's a great opportunity going into his biggest game of the year."
Syracuse (18-0, 5-0 Big East), one of four unbeatens remaining in Division I, and the fifth-ranked Panthers were in line to move up at least one slot Monday in the Top 25 in the wake of top-ranked Duke's loss at Florida State on Thursday night.
The Orange are one win from matching the best start in program history set in the 1999-2000 season, but they'll have to play without leading scorer Kris Joseph. He crashed hard to the floor on a drive and the back of his head slammed the hardwood with just over six minutes left in the first half against Cincinnati. He went to the locker room to be evaluated after scoring just two points, did not return, and won't make the trip because of recurring headaches, according to Pete Moore, director of athletic communications.
"He (Joseph) is a big part of us," said Syracuse forward Rick Jackson, who has 11 double-doubles on the season. "Our young guys are just going to have to step it up."
Syracuse vanquished the Bearcats by scoring the first 16 points of the second half to break open a four-point game and never was threatened again.
Now comes Pitt, which has beaten Syracuse seven straight times in the regular season and thrives in the friendly confines of the Petersen Events Center.
"We've been playing great," Jackson said "Pitt's going to be tough. They call it the zoo. It feels like everybody's breathing down your neck. We just have to play with poise and we'll be fine."
The Panthers haven't lost to the Orange since Gerry McNamara led Syracuse on its amazing run in the 2006 Big East tournament, beating Pitt 65-61 for the title.
The Orange also own the distinction of handing the Panthers their first-ever loss at "the zoo," and McNamara, now an assistant to Boeheim, keyed that win, too. He hit a go-ahead 3-pointer and two key free throws in overtime as Syracuse halted Pitt's 40-game home winning streak with a 49-46 upset in February 2004. The Panthers, ranked third at the time, had been 34-0 at the Petersen Events Center and have a current 19-game streak going.
Without Joseph, Boeheim has to be heartened by the play of Melo, whose points against the Bearcats came on a dunk, a tip, and a soft 12-foot jumper off the glass to the right of the basket, and 6-11 freshman center Baye Moussa Keita. They combined to play 31 minutes and had seven of the Orange's 10 blocks against Cincinnati, allowing Jackson to remain at forward instead of moving to the middle as he has in previous games when the two towering freshmen have struggled.
James Southerland also continued his stellar play off the bench along with freshmen C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters. They took up the slack in the absence of Joseph, combining for 20 points — Joseph had averaged 19.5 in the first four conference games.
"That says a lot about us, that guys can step up," Jackson said. "Guys are working hard, staying ready when there's an opportunity. Fab did a great job. He did what we needed him to do. We're a well-rounded team. It doesn't matter if one guy goes down."