College basketball's regular season gets off to its now traditional running start tonight as first-round play begins in a glitzy preseason NIT, whose 16-team field includes half of last season's Final Four and 13 schools that saw postseason action.

Such high-powered, high-intensity early season matchups now are in vogue as the favored first step to grooming a national championship contender -- not to mention as a means of boosting revenue -- and few of the participants in this tournament are mourning the passing of the trend toward rampant November and December schedule padding.

"These kinds of games give you a step up on your opponents who aren't playing against this type of good competition early in the season," said Arizona Coach Lute Olson, whose third-ranked Wildcats open at home against Austin Peay. "It doesn't do you any good to play second-rate competition ten times before your conference schedule gets underway.

"I think people across the country are starting to realize that, and the fans are the beneficiaries. . . . There's no other way to find out about your ballclub than to play good teams, and we're guaranteed of that in this tournament."

Included in the NIT are five clubs ranked among the top 20 in the Associated Press preseason poll. Second-ranked Arkansas and No. 6 Duke, who squared off against one another in a national semifinal last season, open tonight by hosting Vanderbilt and Marquette, respectively. Oklahoma, ravaged by academic ineligibilities but still ranked 15th, faces New Orleans. Memphis State is at Boston College and highly regarded East Tennessee State visits Brigham Young.

On Thursday night, Notre Dame hosts Fordham and No. 19 Temple is at Iowa. If Oklahoma and Arkansas win tonight, the season would have its first glamour game Friday, for the Sooners and Razorbacks are paired for a second-round meeting.

This sixth preseason NIT is the first to be bracketed beforehand. If matters go as expected, next weekend's semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden will feature the Arkansas-Oklahoma winner against Duke, and Arizona vs. Temple.

The coaches, naturally, mostly refused to speculate yesterday about down-the-road opponents. Even usually irascible Sooners Coach Billy Tubbs steered clear of a ruckus, downplaying earlier hints that he might refuse to play Friday's game on Arkansas' home court if the NIT pairing committee so dictates.

"What I said was that I'd rather play all of our games in Norman," Tubbs said. "I'm trying to move all of our conference games here too."

This tournament often has been a harbinger of the season -- a phenomenon that never was better demonstrated than in 1985, when three of the NIT's final four teams (Duke, Kansas and Louisville) ended up in the NCAA tournament's Final Four. "It's a good chance to measure yourself quickly against some quality teams," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

In this season of widespread uncertainties, the leading national title contenders could emerge from this field again. With defending champion and top-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas on probation and barred from the NCAA tournament (although it is appealing), Arizona and Arkansas look to be the clubs to beat, and Duke -- with a starting lineup that likely will include freshman Grant Hill, from South Lakes High School in Reston -- seemingly is not far behind.

The Wildcats boast the "Tucson Skyline" frontcourt of 6-foot-11 Brian Williams, 6-11 Sean Rooks and 7-foot Ed Stokes. They have Kentucky transfer Chris Mills and a steady if less-than-blazing pair of guards in junior Matt Othick and senior Matt Muehlebach.

But Arkansas, 30-4 last year and the winner of its last 15 season openers, may be even better. The Razorbacks return all-American candidates Todd Day and Lee Mayberry, plus a slimmer Oliver Miller at center. And Coach Nolan Richardson appreciates the chance for an early start, with most college teams not slated to begin play until next week.

"It means we have an extra week to work our kinks out," Richardson said. "If we end up winning the national championship by one week's-worth of kinks, we'll know this did it for us."