Beard gone, but Duke still dangerous

Duke beat Kansas State on Saturday in the Junkanoo Jam tournament in Freeport, Bahamas. And in watching the game, it was interesting to think back on the Blue Devils' history. There was a time, not so long ago, when Duke had the "finesse team" label that Kansas State still grudgingly carries -- a label that is most assuredly hard to shed.

But nobody's going to call Duke a finesse team this year. The Blue Devils won't be outmuscled, not with starters such as 6-foot Monique Currie, 6-7 Alison Bales and 6-3 Mistie Williams, and 6-5 freshman reserve Chante Black. They're going to cause all kinds of defensive problems for teams they face this year.

Especially when you add in the quickness and tenacity of 5-11 freshman guard Wanisha Smith, who's going to play an even bigger role than expected because of the suspension of junior guard Lindsey Harding.

Harding still travels with the team and was in the Bahamas, but the date of her return is uncertain. That brings up one of the things that might cost Duke some victories this season, especially on the road against a team such as Tennessee, the Blue Devils' foe in Knoxville on Thursday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET). And that's running the offense as a tight ship and avoiding turnovers. Obviously, that would be easier if Harding were playing.

Duke had 26 turnovers against Kansas State. Some of them were from just plain inexperience, which coach Gail Goestenkors knows she'll have to live with as Duke progresses this year. What she was happy about was how well the Blue Devils defended -- holding K-State to 27.9 percent shooting from the field and blocking 10 shots -- and how expertly Duke penetrated on offense. The Blue Devils went to the line 39 times, making 27.

Now, let's cut to the chase ... can Duke challenge for a Final Four spot this season? It's really hard to say right now -- but then again, everything's kind of hard to say with how many "upsets" there have been in November.

Currie is one of the nation's best players, and Goestenkors is getting her to understand that Duke really is her team now. Alana Beard is gone, and Currie -- a much different personality than Beard -- has to take over the leadership role. There's no question her game -- both offensively and defensively -- is plenty good enough for that. And the fact that she's not a
"worrier" like Beard might end up being to Duke's advantage.

Especially last season, the pressure Beard and the Blue Devils put on themselves to "win it all" was part of what caused them to unravel against loose, confident underdog Minnesota in the Elite Eight. That and the fact that Duke didn't shoot all that well from the field -- as was the case in some of its other big games last year.

Duke went the route of having an extremely quick defense and a slashing offense in the Beard years. Goestenkors expects a team this year and next that's a bit more like the Duke team that went to the 1999 NCAA title game: big bodies inside, dependable shooters outside.

There are more shooters on the way for next season; how consistent Duke will be in that regard this year remains to be seen. But certainly, Duke has the big-bodies part now. Bales looks considerably more fit and confident as a sophomore. Williams appears to have further improved as a junior. The rookie Black shows signs of becoming an outstanding presence inside.

And there's also 6-2 Wynter Whitley, back after sitting out most of her junior year for personal reasons. Whitley has lost her father, brother and close friend, and has battled the emotional devastation all of that left. She's a thoughtful, intelligent, multidimensional person for whom the pinpoint focus often needed for basketball has been difficult to maintain. But Goestenkors is sure that as a senior, Whitley can be a big help to Duke.

She's strong, quick and especially adept at drawing charges -- something the Blue Devils have excelled at the last few years as they've made that transition away from the "finesse team" label.

But Duke is likely going to have some rough offensive games this season when it either doesn't take care of the ball well enough, doesn't shoot well enough -- or both. That was the case in the Blue Devils' only loss so far, 76-65 at Notre Dame in the Preseason WNIT. Duke shot 36.8 percent from the field in that game, didn't get to the line as much as needed and had 21 turnovers.

Still, not many front lines are going to stop Bales/Williams/Black when they stay out of foul trouble -- especially not with the constant threat of Currie, the type of player who's capable of having big scoring games against anybody.

The other X-factor with Duke is injuries, because it's not a deep team with nine currently active players.

Duke's season clearly isn't going to be judged on how it does against Tennessee on Thursday, or even whether it withstands the expected strong challenge from North Carolina and maybe Maryland to win the ACC regular-season title again. NC State might do some damage in the ACC, too.

No, the meter really doesn't start running on Duke this season until the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils have won that five years in a row. By that time, Smith, Black and 6-1 Laura Kurz will be -- as they say -- no longer freshmen. Duke will know then whether Jessica Foley and Caitlin Howe can do the job from behind the arc. And Currie likely will be making a case for national player of the year.

And, unlike the last two seasons, there isn't an overwhelming feeling among the Duke players that anything less than a national championship is a catastrophic failure.

So, yes, Duke has its flaws ... but it's still dangerous, once again.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.