The best volleyball conference this year, top to bottom, is the Big Ten. Two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State, rated No. 1 for much of the year, finished fourth in the standings for goodness sake.

And the outright champion? That would be the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Don't usually use the Golden but it applies here.

Hugh McCutcheon's club was picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll but surprise ... The U went 18-2, losing to the Nittany Lions in their second conference match, then winning 15 in a row, before falling at then No. 17 Purdue. Then winning final two conference matches.

The Gophers clinched a title share on Wednesday, beating No. 15 Ohio State at The Pav in five sets after dropping first two. On Saturday, they beat Indiana 3-1 to clinch an outright title and got the automatic NCAA berth all 32 conference champions get.

Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said his team played pretty clean in the first two sets against the Hoosiers, but the home team fought hard in the third, then the U showed discipline and concentration to win the fourth set.

"Obviously our athletes knew what was at stake," he said, "the chance to own sole ownership of the Big Ten title for 2015.

"It is a big deal for our program. It's something we haven't done for a long time. ... At this point it is fairly surreal."

The only time the Gophers have won the Big Ten is in 2002, 13 years ago.

"This group of athletes did some special things," McCutcheon said.

The 18 conference wins for the Gophers was a program best. They had gone 17-3 four times, in 200, '02, '04 and '06.

Here is how the top of the Big Ten standings look at the finish:

1. Gophers   26-4,   18-2 ... beat Nebraska in Lincoln, beat Penn State at the Pav

2. Nebraska   26-4   17-3 ... beat Penn State on Saturday

3. Wisconsin  24-6   16-4 ... Badgers won Big Ten a year ago, had quietly strong year ago

4. Penn State  26-5  15-5 ... Coach Russ Rose's teams know how to win in postseason

5. Purdue       22-9    13-7 ... ending Gophers' long winning streak

6. Ohio State  23-9    12-8 ... rated No. 15 nationally in last coaches' poll, lose to Gophers 3-2 twice

The U will get the automatic bid, but the next five teams should get at-large bids (there are only 32 of those) because the best Big Ten teams thrived against nonconference competition. Those top six went 56-8 against opponents outside the conference. PSU was 11-0, OSU 11-1, Nebraska 9-1.

SEEDING TALK

Southern Cal and Washington have been 1-2 in the American Volleyball Coaches' Association poll in the stretch run. And they tied for the Pac-12 title with 18-2 records.

But USC lost last week, falling to visiting UCLA in five sets, so I think the selection committee will flip the two in its seeding. So Washington (28-2) will be No. 1, USC (30-2) will be No. 2. Those teams split two matches, each winning on their home court.

Washington's other loss was at Stanford 3-2 on Oct. 21.

And then I think the Gophers (26-4, who lost their first two matches of the season in late August to Texas A&M and Stanford in Palo Alto) will be No. 3 -- or should be -- for their great run through the rugged Big Ten.

No. 4 will be Texas -- if the Longhorns don't bump the Gophers for No. 3. Texas is 25-2, 15-1 in Big 12, losing at TCU and at home to Florida.

In RPI last week, the top four were Texas, USC, the Gophers and Wisconsin. RPI looks at a team's record and strength of schedule and its one of the criteria the selection committee considers.

Of the top 11 teams in RPI, Big Ten had five of them while three other conferences -- Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 -- had two apiece. That should help Big 10 in getting at-large bids.

In the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association ratings, the top four were USC (with 55 first-place votes), Washington (with nine), Texas and Minnesota. Followed by Nebraska, Stanford and Penn State -- can't see any of those three teams jumping into the top four in NCAA tournament seeding.

The committee wouldn't put three Pac-12 teams in the top four. Highly doubt it. And how can Nebraska or Penn State jump ahead of the Gophers, who won the Big Ten..

Stanford finished third in Pac-12 with 16-4 record and was 22-6 overall (two more losses than Minnesota). Yes, Gophers lost to Cardinal but that was in August.

"I think we have done enough to get a good seed and to be considered one of the top seeds in the tournament," McCutcheon said.

He's right about that.

LOOKING AT U STATS-WISE

The Gophers are fourth in Big Ten in hitting percentage at .261 and fourth in keeping opponents' hitting percentage down, their foes hit .174.

They had two players who led the Big Ten in statistical categories. Senior outside hitter Daly Santana was first in kills with 497 total in all games, and in kills per set at 4.44 despite a recent slump. ... She also was fourth in aces per set at 0.32.

Freshman setter Sam Seliger-Swenson led the league in assists per set at 11.47.

Twins Hannah and Paige Tapp were seventh and 10th in hitting percentage at .331 and .318.

In blocks per set, Molly Lohman was fourth at 1.24 and Paige Tapp fifth at 1.20.

And finally Dalianliz Rosado was fifth in digs per set at 4.18.