ATHENS — As workers put the finishing touches on the gleaming new facade of Stegeman Coliseum, the guys inside the arena were working on a renovation project of their own.
The Georgia Bulldogs can't wait to show what they've built.
"We want to give this school something to be proud of on the basketball side," said Marcus Thornton, a touted freshman forward.
An embarrassing academic scandal in 2003 sent the Bulldogs into a long, excruciating tailspin, leaving men's basketball nothing more than an afterthought at a school where it's already tough enough for any sport not named football to get attention.
But it looks like things are finally on the rise again, led by an All-Southeastern Conference forward, an acrobatic wing man and a coach who got far more out of a depleted roster than anyone expected in his first season.
"When you walk in that locker room, there's certainly a much different mentality than we had a year ago," said that coach, Mark Fox. "A year ago, I'm not sure they believed in themselves. Now, they believe in themselves and each other."
Georgia, which opened an impressive new training facility three years ago, has finally gotten around to sprucing up its aging coliseum. A $13 million makeover has brightened up the drab exterior with towering walls of glass, reaching all the way up to the distinctive roof and providing room for more restrooms and concession stands.
That should provide a better experience for the fans. Now, it's up to the team to make sure there are more of them in the seats.
A year ago, Fox got a better-than-expected showing out of a thin roster that some thought might struggle to win even one SEC game. The record wasn't very impressive — 14-17 overall, 5-11 in conference play — but the Bulldogs knocked off several nationally ranked opponents and were competitive in just about every game.
With a little more depth, Georgia might have competed for a spot in the NCAA tournament. Instead, there were far too many nights in which the young starters, forced to play more than 30 minutes on average, simply wore down at the end of games.
But Fox thinks all those tough losses will pay off this season.
"If we learn from them the right way, it should really work to our benefit," he said. "With those kids becoming upperclassmen, we'll have a team that has a little more experience on the floor. They should be able to recognize situations and make the proper responses when they come up."
There's also more depth to help out Thompkins and Leslie, which will come in especially handy the first month of the season.
The 6-foot-10 Thompkins, who earned All-SEC honors by ranking second in scoring (17.7 points a game) and fourth in rebounding (8.3), could be out for a while after severely spraining his right ankle in a preseason scrimmage. He'll almost certainly miss the Nov. 12 opener against Mississippi Valley State and likely several more games, putting a bit of a damper on the Bulldogs' hopes.
But Thompkins should be back in time for the start of conference play, and Fox doesn't want anything lessening the confidence of an emerging squad that nearly cracked The Associated Press preseason poll.
"Injuries are part of the game," Fox said. "We will rally the troops and keep them together."
Besides, the Bulldogs are a lot better equipped to cope with the loss of Thompkins, who considered entering the NBA draft but decided to return for his junior season.
Point guard Gerald Robinson should provide a fast-breaking spark for the offense after transferring from Tennessee State and sitting out last season.
"I bring a little speed and a little playmaking ability," Robinson said. "My job is to kind of control everything, be the quarterback for everything, and get everyone else involved."
The Bulldogs also landed Thornton, the high school player of the year in the state. The 6-8 forward initially signed with Clemson, but was released from his scholarship after coach Oliver Purnell left for DePaul.
"To get a chance to do something great for the program, to bring some excitement to the program, I'm just glad to be a part of it," Thornton said.
While Thompkins is out, Leslie will take over the lead role. He averaged nearly 15 points a game in a breakout season, but it was the array of high-flying dunks and putbacks that really stood out.
Simply put, this guy is one of the most exciting players in college basketball. And, like Thompkins, he decided to hang around after considering the NBA.
"He bought into how we thought we could use him," Fox said. "He listened and he found success. When he has some good basketball games and productive nights, he developed a confidence in himself. I think the dunks added to that."
Now, it's time for more.
"I just wanted to come back and help the program out," Leslie said. "We're going to try to get a championship."