The pure ideal of judging pace of play as an indicator of West Virginia's success leads one down the wormhole of assumption. It isn't truly the number of possessions, the overall frenetic or hectic pacing, that leads to success. It is, instead, a maximizing of those opportunities in terms of both getting defensive stops on one end and scores on the other.
It's simplistic in its raw mathematical equation. Points per possession, combined with defensive efficiency, should lead to a beneficial scoring margin for teams most effective at both. And that's proven true, as the team with the best record in the nation excels at each. Gonzaga, WVU's opponent in the Sweet 16, enters with a 34-1 record built on the backs of ranking second in the nation in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. Offensive efficiency is measured as the number of points produced per team per 100 possessions, and in the Zags' case, that's 115.8 points, meaning it's averaging 1.158 points per trip down the floor. That's second nationally only to UCLA, which hits for 1.191.
At an average of 83.9 points per game, one can delineate that the Zags are getting approximately 72.5 offensive possessions per game on average. At its core, the measurement serves to discard the direct numerics of shooting percentages, rebounding, free throws per game and more, and cuts right to the idea that point production, regardless of how one gets there, is the prime key to a successful offense. Throw the ball at the bucket five times, but miss four, and as long as one rebounds it and eventually scores, that's a successful trip despite a horrendous shooting percentage and fantastic offensive rebounding numbers. In essence, the end justifies the means.
West Virginia's offensive efficiency? A solid 1.104, which rates 24th nationally. That gives the Mountaineers an average of 82.1 points per game over 74.4 possessions per contest. That's two more than Gonzaga typically gets, but with fewer points the efficiency rating is far better for the Bulldogs. This isn't a surprise. As head coach Bob Huggins has said, WVU gets to 82 points per game, but even he doesn't always understand how they get there. It isn't nearly as pretty as Gonzaga, and at times West Virginia has had to muck up games to win, as it did in lousy offensive outings against Texas and Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament.
A look at defensive efficiency is equally as revealing. The Mountaineers rank fourth in the country, allowing opponents 0.898 points per 100 possessions, which translates to 66.8 per game at the expected 74.4 possessions per game. After all, the possessions, regardless of turnovers or the like, are no more than plus or minus one for each contest. Gonzaga, however, ranks first at 0.843, its foes averaging 61.1 points per game.
The cries of injustice can already be heard. What about strength of schedule? Shouldn't that factor, as well as an adjustment for playing top-shelf teams on a more routine basis? It has been, and most effectively, by Ken Pomeroy, who has taken into account ideals like the above, along with considerations to the more detailed numbers of the adjusted efficiency ratings of opposing teams on the offensive and defensive ends. And there's Gonzaga, atop the numbers again, at an adjusted overall efficiency number of 32.28, meaning they are estimated to score 32-plus more points than they allow over 100 possessions against an average Division I opponent. West Virginia ranks sixth nationally at 27.02.
Both teams are in the top five in adjusted defense, the Mountaineers fifth and Gonzaga first, while WVU's offense ranks 25th and the Zags fifth. On a per-game basis of 72.5 possessions for Gonzaga, that equals a scoring margin of 23.4 points per game. For West Virginia and its 74.4 possessions, the scoring margin sits at 20.1, or a difference of 3.3 points from the Zags.
How to interpret the data? The Bulldogs' schedule doesn't much detract from its considered quality. The Zags, after all, are 6-0 against Power Five foes with wins over Iowa State, Florida, Arizona and Northwestern, among others. It means the West Coast Conference school plays an incredibly efficient and effective game, regardless of the most basic of stats. And it means they maximize chances on offense while still playing pretty darn good defense in terms of opponent scoring.
The bottom line is that while West Virginia presents a thin margin of error for foes, Gonzaga's is estimated to be slimmer still. The Bulldogs simply don't beat themselves, and it shows in the overall, nonconference and power five record. West Virginia is also incredibly effective at what it does in terms of limiting foes, but must convert more efficiently on the offensive end with regard to hitting shots. Make a few more of those point-blank range attempts missed so often in the early stages against Notre Dame, and the efficiency numbers shoot up, as does the difficulty for opponents to defeat WVU.
It's really, in the end, a measure of taking advantage of opportunities, and maximizing those on a per-play/possession basis. Whichever team does that better slants the percentages in their favor to win.