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.”