NORMAN — This much is clear after Oklahoma's opening week of conference play — Lon Kruger and his Sooners have a long way to go on their journey back to respectability and relevance.
But Saturday afternoon, something else became clear.
They are taking steps.
Sure, Kansas came to town and popped OU, 72-61. Yes, the Jayhawks led by as many as 22 points in the second half.
But with the exception of the first 10 or 12 minutes of the second half, the Sooners stood toe to toe with the Jayhawks. They traded punches with the No. 14 team in the land. They landed as many blows as they took.
That's some serious progress.
Just a few days earlier at Missouri, the Tigers landed one knockout punch after another, and the Sooners just took it. There was no fight. There was no energy.
“Better battle today,” Kruger acknowledged Saturday. “Certainly more good stretches than there were Tuesday.”
Thing is, after the way the Sooners played Tuesday, it wouldn't have been completely out of the question for them to play that way again Saturday. It was deflating to be so lifeless at Missouri. It was embarrassing to be beaten by 38 points.
The last few seasons, that kind of performance almost certainly would've carried over.
That looks to be changing.
The Sooners came out against the Jayhawks with a bounce in their step. They were active on the defensive end, causing turnovers, forcing contested shots and even sending the Jayhawks into an offensive tailspin when they started playing zone. They were every bit as engaged on the offensive end, not settling for outside shots and getting to the free throw line.
As a result, the Sooners led 34-33 at halftime.
“We came out in the first half and we were really strong on both halves of the court,” Sooner big man Romero Osby said. “That's a fun way to play.”
It's fun to watch, too.
A crowd of 9,000-plus roared its approval time and again in the first half. Even though there were a good number of blue-clad Kansas fans, the crimson-clad OU fans were the ones enjoying themselves.
But then, those unenergetic, unenthusiastic Sooners returned. They stood around. They turned over the ball. They allowed easy baskets.
And the Jayhawks opened the second half with a 29-6 run.
“The 10 minutes ... to start the second half was probably the best run we've had all year,” Jayhawk coach Bill Self said. “Other than that, it was just back and forth. We didn't outplay them at all, other than that 10 minutes.”
That is huge step in Norman, where it has been a struggle these past few seasons for the Sooners to hang with quality teams for any length of time.
But let's not kid ourselves — these games against Missouri and Kansas also show that OU still has a long ways to go. There might have been a false sense of progress after the Sooners posted a 10-2 record during nonconference play, but now, we see that they aren't yet close to where they want to be.
That reality isn't lost on the man charged with leading them on this journey.
“Progress is going to be the theme of what we're trying to do,” Kruger said. “We've got to get more physical. We've got to get tougher. We've got to be more involved, more engaged every possession for 40 minutes.”
The Sooners didn't get to the 40-minute mark Saturday, but they were closer than they were Tuesday.
But the road ahead of the Sooners is extremely long. Even though they made some strides against the Jayhawks, there are many more steps that still have to be taken.