ATHENS, Ga. -- When he arrived at Georgia in 2009, Mark Fox had only his previous experience at Nevada as evidence that he could turn the lowly Bulldogs into winners.
Having led the Bulldogs to an NCAA tournament bid in his second season at Georgia, Fox now has more convincing proof.
"We wanted to become relevant again," said Fox, whose team plays its first exhibition game Friday night. "When you rebuild, ultimately you have to be able to show some successes. Last year getting into the tournament was something that we can now tell people that not only do we have a vision for where we want to go, but we've made steps towards it."
Last year, Georgia (21-12, 9-7 SEC) posted its first 20-win season since 2001-02 before losing 68-65 to Washington in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That Bulldogs roster boasted a pair of juniors who left early for the NBA -- Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, who combined to average 30.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game -- as well as departed post players Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes.
In their absence, McDonald's All-American swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -- who averaged 30 points per game in his last two seasons at Greenville (Ga.) High School -- and the other members of Georgia's five-man recruiting class might need to contribute heavily if the Bulldogs are to return to the postseason.
"I know I'm going to play a big part on this team, so I'm looking forward to helping them out," Caldwell-Pope said.
The 6-foot-5 freshman arrived on campus in the summer and has already impressed his new teammates in offseason workouts, said senior guard Dustin Ware.
"He's going to be just fine. He's just as good if not better than advertised," Ware said.
Ware (8 ppg, 3.5 apg) and fellow senior guard Gerald Robinson (12.2 ppg, 4 apg) provide the most significant veteran leadership on the team, with less experienced players such as Marcus Thornton and Donte Williams expecting to see increased time in the post now that Thompkins, Barnes, Price and Leslie have completed their college careers.
Because of the remaining talent on Georgia's reconstructed roster, the Bulldogs figure they will play a different style of basketball than last year's post-dominated bunch.
"I'm pretty sure we'll be more up-tempo," Robinson said. "We have a different kind of team which you see if you just look at the build of our team. We have more of a slender, lean-type team, more so than Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes down there grinding it out. It will definitely be a different style to help us be successful."
Last year's success was a major departure from Georgia's recent basketball history, and the players know it will not be easy to sustain without last year's key contributors.
But they got a taste last year of what it takes to become a winning program, and Fox complimented them recently for their work in the offseason to try to reach the tournament for a second consecutive season.
"Really the biggest thing you take away is the intensity that you have to play with," Ware said. "There are a lot of good teams across the country, and we have to work hard to be just as good if not better than all of them."
The tournament appearance was one step in Fox's project to legitimize Georgia basketball. Another was that both Thompkins and Leslie were drafted, becoming the first Bulldogs selected in the NBA draft since 2004.
But Fox recognizes that the project is incomplete. What Ware, Robinson, Caldwell-Pope and the rest of the Bulldogs accomplish this season represents the next phase of construction.
"All those things are parts of the rebuilding process and we have a ways to go," Fox said. "But it was important for us to have that success so we can build on it."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.