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Preview: No. 5 Notre Dame Irish visit No. 6 Virginia Tech Hokies in game between two of ACC’s best

The Virginia Tech Hokies have started the season 10-0, but they’re down a significant piece of their backcourt rotation entering a key matchup against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Will Virginia Tech’s half-court defense and paint presence be enough to slow down Notre Dame’s explosive guard play?

Virginia Tech v Louisville
Reigning ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley will need to carry the load for the Hokies on Sunday if they’re to preserve their undefeated record.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The No. 6 Virginia Tech Hokies (10-0) host the No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-1) on Sunday in a matchup between the two highest-ranked teams in the ACC. It will be the first ACC game of the 2022-23 season for Notre Dame and the second for Virginia Tech, both of whom are expected to compete for the ACC title. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network, with tip-off scheduled for 4 p.m. ET.

Virginia Tech entered the 2022-23 season with high expectations, and its spotless record thus far would suggest that the Hokies are, at the very least, playing up to par. They’ll be without star guard Ashley Owusu, however, for the foreseeable future; the 2020-21 Ann Meyers Drysdale Award winner, who transferred to Virginia Tech this past summer after three seasons at Maryland, recently suffered a broken finger and is without a clear date to return to the court.

While the Hokies have done just fine without Owusu in the three games she’s missed, her absence may hurt against the Irish, who field one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country in Olivia Miles. The sophomore guard recorded her third career triple-double in Notre Dame’s last game, against Merrimack, and she’s currently averaging a healthy stat line of 16 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at Notre Dame
Notre Dame is led by stat-sheet-stuffing guard Olivia Miles, who recorded her third career triple-double in the Irish’s last game.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, the Hokies still have more than enough talent to pose a threat. Kayana Traylor has played well in Owusu’s stead, and Georgia Amoore ranks ninth in the country in assists per game (6.7). As a team, Virginia Tech is allowing 69.8 points per 100 possessions; per Her Hoop Stats, that’s the sixth-best defensive efficiency in the country.

Then there’s 6-foot-6 center Elizabeth Kitley, who is averaging career highs in points (18.8) and rebounds (11.2) per game. The reigning ACC Player of the Year anchors Virginia Tech on both ends of the floor and has recorded a double-double in eight of the Hokies’ 10 games. Kitley is also averaging 2.1 blocks and ranks second in the country in Her Hoop Statsdefensive win shares metric.

With their go-to player operating primarily in the paint, the Hokies naturally play more of a half-court game than the Irish, so pace of play will definitely be a factor. Notre Dame thrives when it gets the ball in the open court, and Miles is flanked by Dara Mabrey, who’s shooting 39.3 percent on 6.8 threes attempted per game. Unsurprisingly, the Irish’s overall offensive numbers thus far have been impressive — Notre Dame currently ranks fifth in Division I in offensive efficiency, scoring 117.1 points per 100 possessions — but they’ve also gotten the job done on the glass, owning the fourth-best rebounding rate (60.4 percent) in the country.

Will Kitley’s undeniable presence in the paint neutralize the Irish’s team rebounding efforts, or will Notre Dame be able to manufacture efficient offense with its guard play? This may be an early-season matchup, but there’s already a lot at stake here; the ACC is expected to be one of the country’s toughest conferences throughout the season, and there’s a good chance the two programs meet again in next spring’s ACC Tournament.