Back off, Big Ten basketball bashers. Minnesota coach Clem Haskins thinks you're out of line.

Critics of the conference say it's overrated, arguing the league's hoop teams aren't as talented or tough as those in the ACC, SEC or Big East.And while the league has no representation in that other Final Four in San Antonio, it will have the NIT championship all to itself tonight when Penn State (19-12) and Minnesota (19-15) play for the tournament's 61st championship at Madison Square Garden.

"The Big Ten takes its licks as not being a competitive conference," Haskins said. "But last year we made the Final Four, and if we hadn't lost Eric Harris, we would have been national champions. This year, we have two teams in the NIT final. It's time to give some credit to the Big Ten."

The conference hasn't produced an NCAA champion since Michigan in 1989, but with an all-Big Ten final this year, the league is assured of its third NIT titlist in six years. Fresno State and Georgia meet in the consolation game before the championship.

"I'm happy Penn State is in the final because it means we will have a Big Ten champion regardless," Haskins said.

The third Minnesota-Penn State matchup this season - they split their two regular-season games - will also be the first NIT championship between teams from the same league since 1979, when Indiana defeated Purdue in another all-Big Ten final.

Minnesota, which won the NIT in 1993, earned a spot in the final with a 91-89 win over Fresno State. After finishing third in 1990 and '95, Penn State, which beat Georgia 66-60 in the semis, will be seeking its first men's basketball cham-pionship of any kind.

An NIT title would raise the profile of Penn State basketball. For years, basketball was merely a distraction for the school's football fans, filling the time between a bowl game and spring practice for Joe Paterno's squad.

"Our success in the NIT is a good boost for this program," said coach Jerry Dunn, in his third year at the school.

After a 21-7 season and trip to the NCAA tournament in 1995, Dunn's team dropped to 10-17 a year ago. This season, the Nittany Lions got off to a 7-3 start before losing by 17 at Michigan and 22 at Purdue in their first two league games.

The team regrouped in its first home conference game, overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Minnesota 75-68. Junior center Calvin Booth set a career high with 23 points and four blocks, and freshman Joe Crispin set a single-game school record by making 14 straight free throws. Penn State made 29 of 33 free throws, including 25 of 28 in the second half.

In the second meeting at Minneapolis, the Gophers held Booth with-out a point in the second half to overcome a 15-point deficit and win 82-77.

Penn State's Jarrett Stephens scored a career-high 27 points with 11 rebounds in the loss. Now the Lions will be without the junior forward.

In the first half against Georgia, Stephens sprained a knee ligament when he was sent sprawling on a breakaway layup in which Bulldogs center Larry Brown was called for an intentional foul.

It was the second time this season a Penn State players was seriously injured. Point guard Dan Earl's season ended with a torn knee ligament Dec. 6 against Lehigh.

"I am more concerned about his future than what will happen with our team tomorrow," Dunn said. "Jarrett Stephens has done a great job for us all season in a difficult situation. . . . Injuries happen in life, it's all about how you handle them. When Dan Earl went down after the fourth game of the season, we could have folded. We didn't then, and we didn't last night. We showed our character again."