SMU vs. Minnesota: Gophers' NIT Title Proves Big Ten Is Nation's Best Conference

Sean FryeFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 1:   Joey King #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers and teammates celebrate a win over Florida State Seminoles during the NIT Championship semifinals at Madison Square Garden on April 1, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers proved on Thursday night that the Big Ten, not the Big 12, is the nation's best conference this season. 

The Gophers beat the SMU Mustangs on Thursday night in Madison Square Garden, 65-63, winning the NIT Championship over a team that many thought was the biggest snub from the Big Dance. In the process, they proved to the rest of the country that they very well should've gotten an invite to the NCAA tourney, and that the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country. 

In the championship game, the Gophers survived a tough SMU team—which beat Final Four-bound UConn twice—behind 19 points from Austin Hollins, son of former NBA player and coach Lionel Hollins. 

After the game, head coach Richard Pitino, whose father Rick was in the stands watching the game with Peyton Siva, said that his team deserved to be playing in the NCAA tourney. 

"We made some big-time plays," Richard Pitino said, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "Austin made a big-time 3. We gutted it out. That is a very good team. They're a really good team. They deserve to be in the NCAA tournament. I'm really proud of our guys. I'm so happy for our seniors. They get to walk off this court with a win."

Most people saw the Big 12 as the nation's toughest conference. Seven of the league's 10 teams made the NCAA tournament, the most bids of any conference in the country. 

Six teams from the Big Ten made the tourney, matching the number of teams that the A-10, ACC and Pac-12 sent to March Madness. 

Number of NCAA Tourney Bids from Power Conferences
ConferenceNo. of Bids
Big 127
Big East4
Big Ten6
B/R research

None of the aforementioned conferences have a team in the Final Four. The Big Ten does in the form of Wisconsin. So it's very possible that the Big Ten could have both an NIT and an NCAA champion at season's end. 

Nobody from the Big 12—the nation's perceived best conference—made it to the Elite Eight, and just two teams—Iowa State and Baylor—made it to the Sweet 16. 

On the flip side, the Big Ten had three teams in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. No conference had more members at either level. 

The Big Ten is also one of the most balanced conferences in the country. All 12 teams from the league registered at least 15 wins. No other power conference can make that claim.  

Six Big Ten schools had at least 20 wins. Another two had 19. 

While the Big 12 had 70 percent of its conference make the tourney, it also had one of the worst D-I programs in the country in TCU amongst its ranks. The Horned Frogs finished 0-18 in conference play and just 9-22 overall. No other power conference had a team go winless in conference play. 

Meanwhile, every team in the Big Ten had at least five wins in conference play, and the top half of the league had a .500 record or better in Big Ten play. 

Winning the NIT may seem a bit overhyped. After all, it is just the NIT. 

But Minnesota was a quality team all season long. It was listed on Joe Lunardi's ESPN Bracketology as one of the first four teams out, proving that it was just a win or two away from making the Big Dance. 

Early in the year, the Gophers gave then-No. 8 Syracuse a run for its money in a 75-67 loss. They also beat Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State at one point, and took Michigan State to overtime. 

The Gophers were one of the nation's most underrated teams, and that was a result of being buried in what was a very, very elite Big Ten Conference. 

But on Thursday, the Gophers showed the nation that they not only should've been playing the NCAA tournament, but that the Big Ten is truly the nation's most elite conference.