ATHENS — The construction noise was an appropriate backdrop for Mark Fox as he talked about building a winning program at Georgia.
A $13 million facelift of Stegeman Coliseum is providing a shiny new glass exterior to a facility which opened in 1964. Also new are the expectations for Georgia's first winning season in four years.
Optimism began to rise when Georgia's top scorers, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, returned for their junior seasons instead of entering the NBA draft.
Thompkins, a 6-10 forward, was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference player who ranked among the league's top five with averages of 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds. Leslie, a 6-4 small forward, averaged 14.8 points and used his leaping ability for a team-leading 30 dunks.
There was too little support for Thompkins and Leslie last season as Georgia finished only 14-17 in its first season with Fox. Now there is improved talent and depth and Thompkins said he wants to be part of the first winning season in Athens since Georgia was 19-14 in 2006-07 while winning the SEC tournament.
"I knew we could do something great with the nucleus we have," Thompkins said. "I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to leave something that was a positive. I wanted to leave my stamp here at the university as a guy who was a winner and as a guy who wanted to create something great and was a part of starting a change."
Guard Ricky McPhee is the only starter lost from last season. Georgia also lost 6-11 center Albert Jackson, a part-time starter.
The four returning starters are Thompkins, Leslie, guard Dustin Ware and forward Jeremy Price.
Price (6-8, 270) and Chris Barnes (6-7, 240) are the only players remaining from the 2007 SEC tournament championship team.
The freshman class includes forward Marcus Thornton, who was released from his letter of intent with Clemson after coach Oliver Purnell was hired by DePaul.
Another newcomer to watch is junior guard Gerald Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State who could start. Robinson and another transfer, Connor Nolte, practiced with Georgia last season and sometimes led the scout team to wins over the starters.
"Gerald is going to have an impact on this team," Fox said, adding the 6-1 guard brings "speed and quickness to the floor" and can score by attacking the basket.
McPhee and Ware took almost all the minutes in the backcourt last season. There is better depth this season with Ware, Robinson and sophomores Vincent Williams and Sherrard Brantley.
Fox said Leslie also could see time at guard. Leslie scored a career-high 34 points in a second-round SEC tournament loss to Vanderbilt to close last season.
"We have more depth," Fox said. "This year if someone is not defending the way I think they should, I can sit them down. Now we have competition for playing time."
Fox's options at forward include Thompkins, Price, Barnes and Thornton, who averaged 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead Atlanta's Westlake High School to a state championship as a senior.
The improved depth will allow Fox's team to play more man defense.
"We have different kind of players that give us more versatility at the 1 and 2 guard spots," Robinson said. "We're playing a lot more man. I feel like it starts with me and how we guard people on the perimeter."
The renewed commitment to defense is Fox's emphasis.
"It's about wanting," Thompkins said. "We have expectations to be great, but we also understand if we can't stop anybody we're not going to be great. Coach Fox stresses every day that this year we're going to be tougher on the defensive end because we have to be. We don't have a choice."
Fox said his players, full of self-doubt a year ago, began to believe they could win last season.
"They didn't have a lot of confidence," Fox said. "They didn't have a lot of faith in themselves or in each other. I don't think they were functioning like winning people a year ago. Now I think if you walk in the locker room you see guys who believe in each other, they believe in themselves, they believe in the team.
"It's quite a bit different, and the kids deserve credit for maturing in that way."
Georgia was 12-20 in Thompkins' freshman year. Coach Dennis Felton was fired during the season.
Now Thompkins said the players are eager to complete the turnaround.
"We expect to be among the best and we won't accept anything less," he said. "We worked too hard and we worked too long as a team to let us fall short of what we're supposed to do."