Late start doesn't hurt Huskies, Ducks

Kansas already has visited Canada. So has Pittsburgh. UNLV spent Labor Day weekend north of the border as well. That same weekend, Iowa State played a few games in Mexico.

Florida practiced for eight days, but one of four hurricanes that has pounded the state shelved the Gators' trip to the Bahamas. Xavier and Virginia are practicing this week for October trips during a fall break.

Washington and Oregon? The two Pac-10 universities are just getting started -- with the first quarter beginning this week.

But don't be misled by their late start due to the quarter system. Neither team should be too far behind any of their Pac-10 competition (UCLA also just got going this week) or any other team in the country.

Both squads should be ready to work just as hard as schools on a semester system once practice begins Oct. 16.

The reason?

Washington has junior guards Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy.

Oregon has sophomore guard Aaron Brooks and a potential Pac-10 freshman of the year in 6-foot-6 wing Malik Hairston.

It's early, way too early, to start making declarative statements about where each school will finish. But Washington is clearly a national player after its second-place finish in the Pac-10 a year ago and a thrilling first-round game (albeit a loss) to UAB in the NCAA Tournament.

Oregon -- yes, the same Ducks team that lost lottery pick Luke Jackson, one of America's top five players last season -- has a chance to be Washington of a year ago.

That's right, the Ducks could be the Huskies of 2003-04, while the Huskies have a shot to be the Ducks of 2002. Last season's Washington team came out of nowhere to finish second after an 0-5 Pac-10 start. The Oregon team of 2002 had the Luke Ridnour, Luke Jackson & Freddie Jones Show to reach the Sweet 16.

Washington is getting all the hype now. Oregon should get its share during the season.

"We're going to shock the world," Robinson said.

"We shouldn't be considered anything right now," Brooks said. "But we're gelling better than last year."

The onus is on the players to be in shape and already further along fundamentally when teams start so late into September. They don't have the advantage of six weeks of individual workouts. That's why Washington and Oregon are feeling pretty good about their teams as school starts. Both coaching staffs have players, and more notably leaders, who are self-motivated.

That's why there is strong evidence suggesting that Washington and Oregon should be on the radar throughout the season and keeping Gonzaga company in what could be a basketball-crazed Northwest in 2004-05.

Washington: Robinson, Roy critical to Huskies' run
The Huskies' rise into the national scene began with the 5-9 Robinson's highlight-driven dunks and culminated with their run to second in the Pac-10, snapping Stanford's 26-game winning streak, and pushing UAB to the edge in the NCAA's first round.

They were a fun bunch to watch. That shouldn't change this season because Robinson decided to return despite being the talk of the Chicago pre-draft camp last June.

Robinson wasn't even listed in the NBA draft guide because no one at league headquarters thought he warranted a bio. Yet he clearly played his way onto the draft board as a possible second-round pick. Still, he had the sense to return for his junior season and try to play himself into the first round.

"I have no regrets," Robinson said.

He shouldn't. Robinson has a chance to create buzz throughout the year. He still had to improve this past summer. He said he took tapes of himself and studied his mistakes, from passing and shooting to free throws. He found he needed to tweak all aspects of his game, including his leadership.

"I made sure that if anyone needed a partner to work out with that they call me," Robinson said. "We all stayed around here working out, doing things together and getting ready for the season."

Robinson spent his first semester at Washington playing football, but he has since focused on hoops -- and it's showing up in his work ethic.

"He has become a gym rat," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "He's always playing."

Robinson and Romar agreed Roy is the one player who has shown a higher commitment to working harder. Roy had academic issues his first year and has only played a year and a half. But he was second on the team a year ago in scoring (12.9 per-game average to Robinson's 13.2).

Romar said Roy added 18 pounds of muscle to his 6-6 frame. The word out of the pickup games is that Roy is taking the ball to the basket, getting fouled and finishing.

"I wasn't ready last year [for the wear and tear of a season]," Roy said. "There were times when I played a better Thursday game than Saturday. It wasn't noticeable to the public, but I noticed it. I'm going to do more for this team."

Roy said the Huskies are much more mature this fall and understand how to win, instead of just thinking they might win. That may be the difference between a first-round exit and a Sweet 16 appearance for a team that returns all five starters and its top five scorers (Will Conroy, Bobby Jones and Tre Simmons round out the group).

"It's going to be more of a mental thing than anything else," Romar said. "We can't lose sight of what got us going, the team concept. We have to be a blue-collar team and can't expect to pick up where we left off."

Oregon: Getting cut from Team USA motivates Brooks
Brooks showed up a day late to the USA Basketball World Championship for Young Men qualifying team trials in New Jersey in July. He had an excuse: He had to finish summer school. But he still couldn't catch up to Wake Forest's Chris Paul or Arizona's Mustafa Shakur.

Brooks got cut. But he didn't pout. He went back to work.

"No one can guard him in the open court," said Oregon coach Ernie Kent, who backs his players and pumps them up about as well as any coach in the country. "His jump shot has improved tremendously. He's a little guy at 6 feet, but he plays like he's 6-5 by the way he finishes at the hole against 7-footers.

"He's T.J. Ford with a jump shot and maybe quicker and shoots the basketball better."

Brooks said he came back after the trials and began working in order to prove he belonged with the best point guards in the country. He even went back to his native Seattle to work out with Robinson a few times.

"I put in more shots," Brooks said. "I used to wait for another player to play with me, and I would make excuses for why I didn't work out. Now, I take it upon myself to get into the gym and work out. I haven't taken an off-day [all summer]."

Brooks' added motivation stems from the 10 games he missed his freshman season due to a fractured right wrist. Brooks finished with a 2.7-2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio that probably will change dramatically with more reps this season.

"That went into my mindset because other point guards and freshmen in the country got more reps than me, so I had to make up for lost time," Brooks said. "I had to work even more."

Brooks raved about the improved play of returning center Ian Crosswhite. Kent was heaping praise on sophomore Kenny Love. But for the Ducks to jump from the NIT to the NCAA Tournament, they need a stellar season from Hairston.

He was one of the Pac-10's best late signees in recent memory. His signing at Oregon came as a shock to Michigan, his native state school; Ohio State; Kansas and UCLA. But the Ducks put in their hardest recruiting effort to date for an out-of-region player, including flying in Hairston for a visit on a private jet (all within the rules) in a 24-hour window.

Classes began Monday, and already Hairston is becoming a fixture around the basketball office. He apparently is the leader in the weight room and in pickup games.

"He is a brilliant student, too," said Kent, adding that Hairston's GPA was around 4.0 over the summer. "That all goes along with his character. He's going to be a joy to coach, and I expect him to have a monster year. He came in benching 95 pounds, and after six weeks it went up to 255. He changed his body in six weeks with us. He is tremendously mature for a 17-year-old."

Brooks said Hairston has a "chip on his shoulder," albeit not a negative one. He said Hairston wants to show people how competitive he is and prove that he's one of the best.

"I wanted to come in and fill Luke Jackson's role," said Hairston without hesitation. "I know that's going to be difficult, but I want to show great leadership, offensively and defensively."

Hairston said he spent weeks this summer learning about his teammates and the program so he could understand how to lead this team. He has tried to push the right buttons to improve the intensity in the weight room and in pickup games.

"We're a young team with a lot to learn, but we're going to work hard and we've already got some kind of chemistry," Hairston said.

Brooks promised that he and Hairston wouldn't be Luke and Luke.

"But we'll be a nice combination," Brooks said.

So, too, will the Oregon-Washington games. The latter is the favorite to finish second behind Arizona, while the former might not be too far behind if it meshes well enough to get past Stanford and any other challenger on its way toward a possible NCAA berth.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.