Rhode Island (0-0) at Pittsburgh (0-0)

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Pittsburgh had relatively low expectations a year ago, but still managed to win 25 games and surprise nearly everyone in the Big East. Most of Jamie Dixon’s top players return from that squad, and the expectations are considerably higher.

The fifth-ranked Panthers, who are hoping this season ends with the school’s first trip to the Final Four in 70 years, open play Monday night against Rhode Island in the 2K Sports Classic at the Petersen Events Center.

Pittsburgh is coming off a 25-9 season in which it finished tied for second in the Big East despite being picked to finish ninth. The Panthers, whose season ended with a loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament, return four starters and seven of their top eight scorers.

“People didn’t think much about us last year, and we finished second in the Big East. So they know what we’re capable of now,” said senior forward Gilbert Brown, who averaged 10.6 points. “But that doesn’t change anything. We have high expectations and want to show what we can do on the court.”

Others also have high expectations for the Panthers, who were picked to finish first in the league in the Big East coaches’ preseason poll.

“Our goal is to be the best, not win a preseason poll,” Dixon said.

Dixon has been one of the nation’s most successful coaches since taking over at Pitt seven seasons ago. In the last five years, only Duke, Memphis, Kansas and North Carolina have won more games than the Panthers. During that time, however, those programs have all advanced to the national title game, while Pittsburgh is still seeking the school’s first trip to the Final Four since 1941.

“We always have high expectations, so that hasn’t changed,” Brown said. “But our goal is to exceed expectations. We’ve come close, but we want to do something very special this year.”

The Panthers no longer boast big-name stars like DeJuan Blair or Sam Young, but this might be the deepest of Dixon’s teams.

Leading scorers Ashton Gibbs (15.7 points per game) and Brad Wanamaker (12.3) return to their familiar roles in the backcourt, while Brown and 6-foot-10 Gary McGhee are expected to provide both muscle in the post and senior leadership. With junior Nasir Robinson out until mid-December after knee surgery, 6-foot-9 freshman Talib Zanna is expected to start at power forward.

“I’ve never been on a more athletic team,” said McGhee, who averaged 6.9 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds last season.

The Panthers, winners of 13 straight season openers, begin 2010-11 looking to continue their dominance at the Petersen Events Center, where they’re 132-11, which includes a 75-1 mark against non-conference opponents.

That doesn’t bode well for Rhode Island, which has lost 22 straight to ranked opponents since defeating then-No. 21 Utah 70-63 in 1998.

The Rams have also lost five straight to Pitt since capturing their only victory in the series in 1981. In the last meeting between these teams in 2002, then-No. 4 Pitt won 87-71 at Rhode Island.

The Rams return three starters from last season’s 26-10 team that finished fifth in the Atlantic 10 and advanced to the semifinals of the NIT. Senior forward Delroy James is the top returning scorer (13.2) and rebounder (5.3) and was a third team all-conference selection.

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