Following a confidence-building win over No. 18 Kansas State, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger stressed the word progress.
If the Sooners survive a treacherous first month of conference play and make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth, the K-State win will be viewed as the springboard.
The more likely scenario is a sub-.500 league record and NIT berth but a foundation for next season.
The Sooners faced an ultra-challenging schedule to start Big 12 play. Their 0-3 league start came in games against two top 10 teams (Missouri and Kansas) and a road game against rival Oklahoma State.
The win over K-State, a top 20 team that almost knocked Baylor from the unbeaten ranks, was invaluable.
“The guys have worked hard and we hadn't won,” Kruger said after OU's 82-73 win Saturday. “A win reinforces progress. It's not a glamorous answer, but from a coach's perspective the most important thing is the win reinforces working hard.”
Kruger's message during holiday break practice sessions has been “improve each day” and “play with toughness.”
“We have good guys. They play hard,” Kruger said. “But it's still a little different between playing hard and playing Big 12 tough. We're not anywhere near Big 12 (tough), physical and aggressive... We need to be a lot more physical, be a lot tougher.”
One of OU's strengths is rebounding. The Sooners are averaging nearly 15 offensive boards a game. But K-State dominated the glass, grabbing 24 offensive rebounds, owning a 44-24 rebounding edge.
“We still have to rebound the ball well in the Big 12,” Kruger said. “And we have to be more physical in other aspects of the game.”
Aspects like diving for loose balls, setting offensive screens and protecting the ball while attacking offensively.
“We want to be a team that prides itself in being tough,” said forward Andrew Fitzgerald. “We want to play hard on defense, get as many stops as we can, take charges, get steals. If we continue to get tougher we'll be fine.”
Being tougher also applies to playing mentally tougher.
During the 0-3 league start, poor shooting was the primary reason OU constantly faced double-digit deficits.
Lengthy droughts were knockout punches, whether it was the first 10 minutes of the second half against Kansas, the final five minutes of the first half against Oklahoma State or a start-to-finish lack of emotion at Missouri.
“Their attitude is good. They work hard,” Kruger said. “(But) our nature is not one of being very physical. We have to fight our natural personalities, which makes it a little more difficult but we have to do that.”
Kruger is trying to change the culture in a program coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 44 years.
Next season the Sooners (11-5) will return their top seven rotation players. Some will have to battle just to stay in the rotation when five players join the mix.
Steven Pledger, Fitzgerald, Romero Osby, Sam Grooms and Carl Blair will be seniors next season. Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal will be juniors. Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye will be an instant impact player like Osby. Four freshmen will compete for minutes.
Kruger's focus is day-to-day “progress.” The win over K-State validated that message.
“I am proud of our guys,” Kruger said. “I am really happy for them. They have worked hard and continued to work throughout the first three leagues games. They have stayed after it every day of practice and we have to keep doing that.
“We have to get better each day. We have a long way to go but it helps reinforce their work effort with a win.”