Five years ago, it looked as if coach Mike Krzyzewski had scored a recruiting coup that would help Duke continue to control its basketball rivalry with North Carolina.
The Blue Devils had won 15 of the past 18 games in the series when a highly skilled big man from the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Ind., enrolled as a freshman in 2005. Josh McRoberts was 6 feet 10 and 240 pounds and could handle and pass the ball like a guard.
Some recruiting analysts had rated him the No. 1 player in his class, and McRoberts had been committed to Duke since he was 16, before his junior season of high school.
"It was the place I always wanted to go to, pretty much," McRoberts said last week.
So North Carolina coach Roy Williams focused on another big man. And in Tyler Hansbrough of Poplar Bluff, Mo., the Tar Heels landed a player who helped them wrestle control of the rivalry from Duke.
The paths of the two high-profile big men at the rival schools demonstrate the inexact nature of recruiting ratings, as well as the unusual twists a rivalry can take.
North Carolina was 6-2 against the Blue Devils during Hansbrough's time. He averaged 20.1 points and 10.8 rebounds in eight games against Duke and left school undefeated in four games at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The national player of the year in 2007-08, Hansbrough led the Tar Heels to two Final Fours and the 2009 NCAA championship.
McRoberts, now a teammate of Hansbrough with the Indiana Pacers, entered the NBA draft after his sophomore season. In those two seasons at Duke, he averaged 9.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists in four games against North Carolina.
"Coming into college together, I thought each was going to be a major contributor," said All-Star Sports recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons. "It turned out that Hansbrough contributed much, much more to North Carolina than McRoberts did to Duke."
It's not that McRoberts didn't play well at Duke, however.
As a freshman playing with senior stalwarts J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, Mc Roberts was the third-leading scorer on a team that was ranked No. 1 for much of the season. When he was a sophomore, McRoberts made second-team All-ACC after leading the team in rebounding and blocked shots and handing out nearly as many assists as starting point guard Greg Paulus.
But Duke was upset by LSU in the NCAA regional semifinals in McRoberts' freshman season and then by Virginia Commonwealth in an NCAA first-round game when he was a sophomore.
"I think we had disappointing ends to our seasons when I was there," McRoberts said. "That's what people remember. That's what I remember. It was a good experience. It made me a better person, better ready to handle the NBA."
It hasn't been an easy road for McRoberts since leaving Duke. He was a second-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007 and is now playing a limited, reserve role for his hometown Indiana Pacers.
He said, however, that he doesn't regret his time at Duke or leaving early. But while McRoberts had two good seasons at Duke, Hansbrough - the No. 7 player in the class of 2005, according to Scout.com - had four great seasons at North Carolina.
"Josh had a good career," Krzyzewski said. "... Hansbrough was a great player, and they knew how to use him very well. And obviously you're going to get a greater return from somebody who's there for four years than somebody who is there for two."
Unlike McRoberts, Hansbrough immediately stepped into a leadership role because the Tar Heels had lost four first-round draft picks off the team that won the 2005 NCAA title.
Williams said it was a luxury having him every night, not just against Duke.
"For four years he was the leading scorer and rebounder, and he was everybody's security blanket," Williams said. "When we threw the ball inside, we felt we were going to get a great opportunity to score and possibly get fouled. Or at least he'd get fouled."
New twist ahead?
Now Hansbrough and McRoberts are together on the same team in Indianapolis.
Despite their roles in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, McRoberts said their college ties are not a topic of conversation in the Pacers' locker room.
"We don't really joke too much about it," McRoberts said. "But he's a good guy, and he's probably one of my best friends on the team."
With Hansbrough gone, the rivalry might be ready to take a new twist. The post-Hansbrough Tar Heels are just 13-10 overall and 2-6 in the ACC entering Wednesday night's game against Duke in Chapel Hill.
Duke (19-4, 7-2) is ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press' top 25 and in first place in the ACC. And the next recruiting turn, Gibbons said, could favor Duke.
Although North Carolina has signed two excellent wings in seniors Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock, Gibbons said point guard is the position where the Tar Heels appear to need help most.
North Carolina point guard signee Kendall Marshall of Arlington, Va., is struggling, according to Gibbons. Meanwhile, future Duke point guard Kyrie Irving has had an excellent senior season.
"Kyrie Irving, it could be he's the equivalent of their Tyler Hansbrough," Gibbons said, "where Kendall Marshall could be the opposite."
But if the careers of Hansbrough and McRoberts illustrate anything, it's that there are always unexpected twists in this rivalry.