Saint Mary's men's basketball coach Randy Bennett is feeling pretty good these days. And he should be.
Yes, his Gaels posted their worst West Coast Conference record (11-7) since 2006-07.
Yes, the Gaels know their only chance of making the big dance is winning the conference tournament.
Yes, the only thing most people have heard about the Gaels is their coach was suspended for the first five conference games of the season.
But that all points to why Bennett should feel good, and does. He's turned around the Saint Mary's program such that a 21-win season is a down year.
"You could complain about it, people thinking 20 wins is a disappointment," Bennett said by phone from Las Vegas. "But in the end, that's what you want. You want the bar set high. This is the level we worked to get to."
No doubt, putting together a run as the No. 4 seed in the WCC tournament would change how the Gaels' season is described. It would be the kind of bang at the end to match the early-season hype they garnered with a 9-0 start.
It's been a turbulent ride for the Gaels, no doubt. They've swallowed heartbreaking losses to Hawaii, George Mason and rival Santa Clara. They squandered a second-half lead at home to BYU. They closed the regular season by getting destroyed by Gonzaga in Moraga.
The campaign to salvage the season starts with No. 5 Pepperdine in Saturday's quarterfinals. It would likely have to include wins over Gonzaga, the top team in the conference and Saint Mary's bully, and No. 2 BYU -- which would more than make up for the handful of games the Gaels squandered during the regular season.
Stealing the WCC's bid to NCAA tournament would also be a rewarding end to a trying season for Bennett, who after battling with the NCAA for three years was penalized for "recruiting violations."
But Bennett has all the vindication he needs. The Gaels' RPI of 64 is nowhere near the previous two seasons, 29 and 30, but it's still better than Clemson, Marquette, Maryland, Georgia and half the Pac-12.
That's down because the last six seasons were up, as Saint Mary's won at least 25 games and made four NCAA tournaments (got robbed the other two).
"We were in the ballpark," said Bennett, concluding his 13th season as Gaels coach. "Sure, we would like to have been better. We had some games we wish we could have back. But we've been right there."
Bennett says winning the WCC tournament is doable. Of course, that's what he's supposed to say as the coach. And, considering this is March Madness, the annual home of basketball miracles, you'd have to say he's right.
Matthew Dellavedova, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, isn't walking through that door. It's possible to see Stephen Holt and Brad Waldow playing like the all-conference players they are. On top of that, James Walker will have to be more than a defender and become a productive third scorer. And Beau Levesque needs to become that surprise star nobody expected but every Cinderella team needs.
And then a few planets will have to waltz together in the cosmos and San Francisco Bay turn to blood. But it's doable.
Bennett, though, doesn't need a tournament victory for vindication. His good name will need some work rebuilding, thanks to the NCAA's oppressive bureaucracy and suspiciously selective prosecution. But tribulation tends to bring perspective.
Good programs have bad years. And what really shows that Saint Mary's has become a good program is that this season is considered bad.
The Gaels still haven't reached Gonzaga's level. But when you think of productive mid-majors, the Zags, Butler and Saint Mary's come to mind. Considering that the Gaels were coming off a 2-27 campaign when Bennett took over in 2001, that's something to feel good about.