Jeff Capel begins his sixth season at Pittsburgh with something unfamiliar: expectations

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jeff Capel has dealt with plenty since taking over Pittsburgh's reeling basketball program in the summer of 2018.

His sixth season brings something new: expectations. Reaching the NCAA Tournament and winning a couple of games there for the first time in nearly a decade will do that.

The Panthers went 24-12 a year ago, finishing a surprising third in the ACC and beating Mississippi State and Iowa State in the tournament before falling to Xavier in the round of 32.

The run validated Capel's vision of what Pitt can be. Sustaining it, however, is another matter. Particularly in an era where the transient nature of college basketball makes carryover from one season to the next so difficult.

“I think our guys are up for the challenge,” Capel said. “We’ve been open and honest and transparent with our guys about (facing expectations).”

Well, not from everyone. Someone in senior forward Blake Hinson's inner circle passed along a ranking from an unnamed outlet that had Pitt settling in at 13th in the 15-team ACC. It ticked him off.

“Honestly I feel like we’re the best team in the ACC,” Hinson said. "Hearing something like that, it’s crazy.”

Hinson considered turning pro after averaging a team-high 15.3 points last season. Then the NBA scouts told him he needed to lose weight. Hinson responded by dropping some 25 pounds from his 6-foot-7 frame. The player who tossed up seven 3-pointers a game as a junior wasn't entirely kidding when he said he expects to be the target of more than the occasional lob to the hoop.

“I’ve lost a couple pounds,” Hinson said. "Look for me hanging off that rim.”

While there are plenty of new faces — Rhode Island transfer guard Ish Leggett and High Point transfer forward Zack Austin chief among time — there are also a handful of holdovers eager to prove last year's breakthrough was anything but a one-off.

“We respect the league but we feel like we can win it,” Hinson said.

TWIN TOWERS

While Hinson spent the summer shedding weight, identical twins Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham spent the summer trying to pack the pounds on.

The 7-foot Guillermo now has “a little stomach” according to junior center Fede Federiko. All kidding aside, Guillermo and 6-11 Jorge are anticipating taking on a larger role and hoping the muscle they've added will make it more difficult for them to get pushed around.

They combined for 6.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as freshmen. Those numbers should increase as sophomores.

FED UP FEDE

The Diaz Graham twins weren't the only ones who had to adjust to the physical nature of big-time college basketball. The 6-11 Federiko quickly discovered playing in the ACC wasn't like playing junior college at Northern Oklahoma or in his native Finland.

While Federiko was solid last winter — he became just the fourth player in Pitt history to shoot 60% from the field and averaged a healthy 1.7 blocks — he knows he needs to make more of an impact on the glass. He averaged 5.3 rebounds as a sophomore but will need to assert himself more with four of the top six rebounders from last year's group now gone.

“Just going to be more aggressive,” he said. "Feel like I’ve got a touch of how the ACC is. Going to be more aggressive, get more boards.”

HOME COOKING

The Panthers open the season on Nov. 6 against North Carolina A&T and won't play their first true road game until a trip to rival West Virginia until Dec. 6.

Before that, there's an appearance in Brooklyn as part of the preseason NIT and a visit from Missouri as part of the ACC/SEC Challenge. Capel believes the stretch will help the Panthers find their footing as they get a feel for each other.

Last season was a taste of what once was at the Petersen Events Center, and Capel believes can be again.

“This program has been really good,” Capel said. "We want to get it back to there.”

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