NORMAN — On the plane ride back from Lubbock, Texas, Saturday night after another Big 12 road win, and with the season's first Bedlam matchup looming 48 hours later, the three players who have been around Oklahoma's program the longest struck up a conversation.
Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal have been Sooners since the Jeff Capel era ended with the 2010-11 season. Walk-on James Fraschilla came along for the start of Lon Kruger's first season.
“We were just kind of reminiscing, Cam and I and James, kind of,” Neal said. “Our conference record my freshman and sophomore year, we had three and five wins or something like that.”
The group talked about how far the program had come since those first two seasons — Capel's final year and Kruger's first season — and how, even in those struggling seasons, the Sooners had found ways to beat Oklahoma State at Lloyd Noble Center.
Monday night's 88-76 win over the Cowboys was different, though.
The difference was not only in the quality of the Sooners, who came into Bedlam ranked for the first time since 2009, but for the Cowboys.
Those wins over unranked OSU teams were clear high points in the season.
“If you take a picture of my freshman year and this year, obviously it's going to be a little different,” Neal said. “But even my freshman year, that relative to other games was like, ‘Oh man, this is an NBA game right here.'
“But tonight, it doesn't get any better than that.”
This year, it's already just one of a series of peaks — a home win over undefeated and No. 9 Iowa State, a bounce-back win at No. 12 Baylor, and then Monday night's mild upset over the No. 8 Cowboys.
Kruger acknowledged the renewed excitement surrounding the rivalry this season while keeping his team pointing ahead.
“It's great for the state, it's great for the rivalry, it's good for the Big 12,” Kruger said. “Again, we have a ways to go, but I like what we're doing and the progress we're making.”
The Sooners came into the season with moderate expectations.
Kruger had led OU back to the NCAA Tournament last season in his second year, but a return seemed unlikely.
Oklahoma lost more than two-thirds of its scoring, including nearly all of its inside offense, from last year's team that made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
So Kruger retooled his team to work around what he did have.
The Sooners turned up the tempo to take advantage of their athleticism while lessening the impact of a small roster with no players taller than 6-foot-8.
Kruger and his staff continued to tinker. Even as the schedule turned toward Big 12 play, the Sooners' defense was among the nation's worst.
Kruger went away from his usual man-to-man defense and experimented with several different zones.
The Sooners aren't moving up the defensive rankings fast — they're still No. 307 in scoring defense nationally — but OU is playing much better on that end of the floor.
The result has been a four-game winning streak in Big 12 play, sole possession of second place in the league and a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth seeming more and more like a bare minimum accomplishment rather than the ceiling of what this team can accomplish.
And wins like Monday night's start feeling more like an expectation rather than an aberration.
“They're a good basketball team,” Oklahoma State's Phil Forte said. “They can score, one through five. They shoot the ball really well. They put it on the floor.
“We knew coming in we were going to have our hands full defensively.”