NEW YORK, NOV. 24 -- There was a time when late November and early December were the serene days of college basketball, when major powers built their portfolios at the expense of schools from Division II and III.

Now there are events such as the preseason NIT. The memories of last season's NCAA semifinal between Duke and Arkansas barely had faded when the two met Wednesday in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The Razorbacks enacted a measure of revenge for its defeat in Denver but fell short of the championship, falling to a powerful Arizona team, 89-77, in the title game on Friday.

"I think that this team is for real," Coach Lute Olson said of his Wildcats, who improved to 4-0 and likely will slide up a notch to No. 2 behind UNLV. Arkansas was ranked second in the preseason polls.

However, continued Olson, "this is a great start for us, but it's not the middle or the end {of the season}. It's important that we focus on getting better as the season goes on."

It can be hard keeping a proper perspective when you get two quality teams going at each other at breakneck pace. From that standpoint, all the talk about a preview of the 1991 NCAA final in Indianapolis seemed appropriate.

One might wonder about Arizona's depth, particularly in the backcourt, but the Wildcats' front line, with Chris Mills, Sean Rooks and Brian Williams, seems capable of going against anybody at any time.

Mills, who was the focal point of a major NCAA inquiry at Kentucky, was named the tournament's most valuable player after totaling 54 points and 18 rebounds in the two games here. The forward scored 29 against Arkansas, many on three-point shots and power layups through traffic.

As the game went on, Rooks became equally dominant, scoring a career-high 31 points. During the decisive spurt, a 28-5 second-half run in which Arizona turned a 57-51 deficit into a 79-62 lead, the 6-foot-11 center had 13 points.

"At this stage of the year for this team, for both teams, to be playing this well is really something," said Olson. "Really this was a win-win situation for both of us because now we know what we have to do to be successful against these kinds of teams a month from now or two or three months from now."

Arizona's second-half onslaught certainly pointed out one of the things Arkansas will have to overcome if it hopes to make a return trip to the Final Four.

The Razorbacks are a marvelous team, bludgeoning opponents with defense and a never-ending series of dazzling athleticism. But, as was the case against Duke (which won the consolation game, 85-77, over Notre Dame) in last season's NCAA semifinals, Arkansas still be can physically worn down in the lane.

That is especially true when 6-9, 265-pound center Oliver Miller isn't in the game. In both games here, the junior was forced to bench with early foul trouble. Arkansas was able to overcome the problem against Duke, which is searching for an inside identity itself, but Mills, Rooks and Williams proved too much.

Friday night, Miller was called for two fouls in the opening 2:43 and picked up his third with 6:12 left in the first half. Two of them came when he appeared to be stationary, allowing Rooks to shoot over him.

"That's the only sad part of our losing here -- Big O's being punished for {a lack of} verticality," said Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson. "He's standing still with his arms straight up in the air -- you can't teach it any better."

When Miller picked up his fourth foul with 11:40 to play, he compounded the problem by drawing a technical foul. Less than four minutes later, Arkansas' star forward Todd Day (who scored just one point in the second half) was also whistled for a technical. That marked the beginning of the end for the Razorbacks, whose play began to deteriorate in the face of the Wildcats' relentless inside game.