Kennedy Meeks

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VIDEO: Marcus Paige touch pass leads to North Carolina dunk

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After settling for perimeter shots too often during the early portion of the first half, No. 1 North Carolina began to find its groove offensively against No. 10 Syracuse. The Tar Heels made 68 percent of their two-point attempts in the first half, and they improved on their 11-point halftime lead by continuing to work the ball inside against the Syracuse zone.

One example of this: a nice touch pass from Marcus Paige to Kennedy Meeks for an uncontested dunk. The play began with Justin Jackson being trapped on the baseline by two Syracuse defenders, with Paige flashing to bail out his teammate. Jackson found Paige, who in one motion found Meeks.

Johnson scores 27, No. 2 UNC beats Wake Forest 83-68

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina got away with Marcus Paige having one of his lowest-scoring games because Brice Johnson came through with one of his best.

Johnson had 27 points and 11 rebounds, and the second-ranked Tar Heels beat Wake Forest 83-68 on Wednesday night for their 10th straight win.

Despite not having any other double-figure scorers, the Tar Heels (17-2, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) extended their best start to conference play since 2000-01, coasting through a second half in which they made just nine field goals and shot 26.5 percent.

“We had the mentality that we were going to outscore them, not defend them,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to not have that mentality going forward.”

The Tar Heels never trailed and overcame one of their worst shooting performances of the season (38.4 percent) by forcing Wake Forest into 19 turnovers and turning them into 21 points.

North Carolina – which appears in line to return to No. 1 after Oklahoma’s loss earlier this week – reeled off 12 straight points late in the first half to build a comfortable lead, then went up by 27 after halftime.

That all happened despite very little falling for Paige, who Johnson called “a ticking time bomb waiting to happen.” Coach Roy Williams said he’s “never had a player that I’ve had more confidence in in my entire life than Marcus Paige.”

The star guard missed his first seven shots before he flipped one in from the lane with about 5 1/2 minutes left. He matched a career low with two points and is a combined 3 for 25 since his 30-point game at Florida State.

“As long as we win, I’m fine,” Paige said. “I’ll be ready when I’m needed to make shots. Tonight, we didn’t need me to make very many shots. … We just played better than them tonight, so I’m not too worried about (the slump).”

It sure helped to have Johnson, who was 8 of 12 in matching the second-highest-scoring game of his career, surpassed only by the 39 points he put up against Florida State on Jan. 4. He also matched a career high by making 11 free throws.

Bryant Crawford scored 18 points and Devin Thomas had 17 for the Demon Deacons (10-8, 1-5), who fell to 5-21 in the Dean Smith Center. They lost their third straight overall and have dropped five of six in January.

“In the second half, we did some better things,” coach Danny Manning said, “but at that point it was too far in the ballgame.”

The Tar Heels broke this one open with that big run late in the first half, a burst started by Johnson’s back-to-back buckets – including a pretty turnaround hook shot from the baseline. Luke Maye had two tip-ins during the run, including one that made it 42-23 with just under 3 minutes left before the break.

QUOTABLE

“`Satisfaction’ is not part of my language right now.” – Williams, irritated at his team’s second-half performance.

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

Television viewers missed about 45 minutes of the ESPN2 broadcast due to what ESPN called technical difficulties. North Carolina officials said the signal was leaving the arena fine, but was having trouble somewhere between Chapel Hill and Bristol. The feed finally started to work during the final moments of the first half.

TIP-INS

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons haven’t won in Chapel Hill since 2010, and since that night, they’ve won just three ACC road games.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels were without 6-foot-10 forward Joel James, who has an injured Achilles tendon. James made seven of his eight starts while Kennedy Meeks was injured but averages only 10.6 minutes and 2.9 points.

UP NEXT

Wake Forest visits No. 15 Miami on Saturday.

North Carolina plays at Virginia Tech on Sunday.

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joedy-mccreary

AP college basketball site: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

No. 5 UNC beats rival NC State 67-55 for 5-0 ACC start

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks attacked the rim, scored through contact and kept throwing himself on the floor for loose balls.

“It was just total effort,” coach Roy Williams said.

The fifth-ranked Tar Heels needed every bit of it against rival North Carolina State, too.

Meeks scored 18 of his 23 points after halftime to help UNC beat N.C. State 67-55 on Saturday, extending the program’s best conference start in 15 years.

While UNC’s best scorers – and the team as a whole – struggled to find a flow, the 6-foot-10 Meeks provided the push as the Tar Heels (16-2, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) gradually pulled away from a halftime tie.

It was Meeks’ second game back after missing seven with a knee injury. He returned last weekend at Syracuse, then returned to the starting lineup Saturday.

“I had the whole week off, I went as hard as I could those last few days of practice,” Meeks said. “I really got after it, got back in the lineup. It’s all a confidence thing for me, so I got back in the second half and really tried to play as big as I could.”

He made 8 of 10 shots after halftime and blocked two shots while repeatedly diving on the floor.

“I asked him, `Did you really dive those three times or did somebody trip you?”‘ Williams joked afterward.

Abdul-Malik Abu had 12 points and 14 rebounds for the Wolfpack, who controlled tempo and attacked the glass early to build momentum and keep UNC off stride.

But with the teams tied at halftime, the Tar Heels pushed ahead with a 16-4 second-half run that featured Meeks scoring over long-armed BeeJay Anya inside – the kind of shots Anya erased in last year’s 58-46 win here by the Wolfpack.

N.C. State (10-8, 0-5) has its worst start in ACC play since going 0-8 in 1996-97.

“We’re not going to pout and mope,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “They’re not going to do that and we’re not going to let them. I’ve said this many times: `You watch this game today, I think you have a hard time walking away from here saying `N.C. State’s a really bad team.’ … But we’re a team that has to get over the hump.”

TIP-INS

N.C. State: Maverick Rowan and Cody Martin, who started over twin brother Caleb, both scored 10 points. … N.C. State shot 40 percent. … The Wolfpack had 18 turnovers. … Anya had three blocks after swatting six here last year.

UNC: Joel Berry II had 14 points, including two 3s during the 16-4 run. … UNC came in as one of the nation’s best-shooting teams at 50 percent, but finished a season-low 37.9 percent. … UNC went 5 of 20 from 3-point range. … The Tar Heels scored 17 points off turnovers.

CONTAINING CAT

ACC-leading scorer Anthony “Cat” Barber (22.5 points) had a rough day with a season-low nine points. The Wolfpack point guard didn’t score after halftime, finishing with more turnovers (5) than field goals (4) or free throws (1) in 35 minutes.

UNC’S BALANCE

The Tar Heels’ top three scorers – Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson – combined for 15 points on 6-for-24 shooting. But UNC and USC were the only teams with six scorers currently averaging in double figures through Thursday’s games, according to STATS. That balanced showed Saturday.

“The difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is we’re dynamic and flexible enough offensively to not sink in a game like that when our best players are struggling,” Paige said.

UP NEXT

N.C. State travels to No. 20 Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

UNC hosts Wake Forest on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks out two weeks with knee issue

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North Carolina center Kennedy Meeks will miss at least the next two weeks as a result of a knee injury, the school announced on Monday.

The injury is a bone bruise in his left knee, according to the school. The 6-foot-8 junior is averaging 12.3 points and 7.4 rebounds.

North Carolina plays four games in the next two weeks, the most notable of which is a game against UCLA in New York on Dec. 19th. They begin ACC play on Dec. 30th, with is a little more than two weeks from today.

With Meeks out of the lineup, expect Isaiah Hicks and Joel James to see more minutes.

Ranking the nation’s top big men

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After ranking the top lead guards and off guards, we move to the wing position.

With more teams moving away from the rigid positions that defined the game of basketball for years, the wing has become a more important role. Nowadays versatility is a trait of many of the nation’s best wings, as they can be used to initiate the offense as either a scorer or distributor.

Without further ado, below are our ranking of the top big men in college basketball. Who’s too high on the last? Who isn’t high enough on the list? Who’d we leave out?

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)

Expectations will be high for the 6-foot-11 center, especially after 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks during Kentucky’s Blue-White scrimmage this week. The native of Haiti still has to prove that he’s consistent on a game-in, game-out basis against big men who are more physically developed, but Labissiere’s skill set makes him a matchup nightmare when he’s setting high ball screens.

2. Georges Niang (Iowa State)

It’s already been a tremendous career for the 6-foot-8 senior, who is hoping for a deep NCAA tournament run to cement his legacy in Ames. One of the most versatile big men in the country, Niang shoots with efficiency from everywhere on the floor (46% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3PT) and is also a very good passer. With another strong season, Niang should pass the 2,000 point mark for his college career by the end of the season.

3. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)

One of the nation’s best shooters, the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer put up ridiculous shooting splits (54% FG, 78% FT. 46% 3PT) while averaging 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. While he’s a liability on the defensive end — and that’s probably putting it lightly — Wiltjer is one of the toughest matchups in the country on the offensive end because his range extends to 25 feet.

4. Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)

The 7-foot junior has already made it clear that he intends to enter the 2016 NBA Draft, so this season will be a huge showcase for Jones. The last two seasons, Jones has been one of college basketball’s most underrated big men and now it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with the spotlight on him. Jones averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season.

5. Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)

One of the stars of the NCAA tournament last season (on and off the floor), this is Hayes’ team now since the Badgers lost so many key pieces. As a sophomore, Hayes showed improved range on his jumper, as he shot 39 percent from distance, and he also showed some tremendous footwork when he went to the post. Hayes average 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game last season and those numbers should go up as he’s now a go-to player.

MORE: Top 100 players | Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top 100 Wings

Utah's Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)
Utah’s Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)

6. Jakob Poeltl (Utah)

The freshman burst on the national scene last season after little was known about him coming from Austria. The 7-foot sophomore will now get a lot of NBA draft buzz this season after coming off the bench for much of last season. Poeltl averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game last season in only 23 minutes per contest. If you’re still having trouble pronouncing his name, Poeltl was kind enough to help you out with a video.

7. Henry Ellenson (Marquette)

A new-breed big man who can stretch the floor with his jumper or handle the ball a bit in the open floor, Ellenson should give the Golden Eagles a tough-to-defend high-low post attack with junior Luke Fisher. A McDonald’s All-American last season, Ellenson stayed in his home state of Wisconsin in-part because his older brother Wally transferred into Marquette from Minnesota to continue his basketball career.

8. Rico Gathers (Baylor)

You could make the argument that Gathers should be playing for Baylor’s talented football team with the way he’s built, but he’s doing just fine on the basketball court. Gathers averaged a double-double of 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as a junior and the 6-foot-8 big man is a load to handle on the interior. Along with Johnathan Motley and Taurean Waller-Prince, Gathers helps the Bears form one of the nation’s best frontcourt units.

9. Perry Ellis (Kansas)

Before a late-season ankle injury, Ellis was playing as well as any big man in the Big 12 and the senior is hoping for a big year to close out his career. One of the most consistent members of an inconsistent Kansas team, Ellis averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season.

10. Cheick Diallo (Kansas)

If he’s eligible to play, Diallo will be one of the best high-motor big men in the country. A terror in the open floor, Diallo was one of the stars of the high school senior all-star circuit this past spring and he’ll rebound and run the floor with the best of them right away.

  • 11. Brice Johnson (North Carolina) Perhaps the best pro prospect on North Carolina’s loaded team, Johnson averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior.
  • 12. Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga) After a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds off the bench, Sabonis is once again apart of a deep Gonzaga frontcourt rotation.
  • 13. Diamond Stone (Maryland) The five-star big man from Wisconsin will be expected to give the Terps an immediate option in the post as Stone is one of the best post scorers to emerge from the Class of 2015.
  • 14. Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) A five-star McDonald’s All-American who decided to stay home, Zimmerman is a highly-versatile big man who is a very good passer. If Zimmerman hunts his own shots, he could have a big year.
  • 15. A.J. Hammons (Purdue) As part of a deep Purdue front line that features two 7-footers and McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan, Hammons should be a load to handle on the interior — if he remains consistent.
  • 16. Anthony Gill (Virginia) An unsung part of what Virginia does on both ends of the floor, Gill had a solid junior campaign, shooting 58 percent from the floor and averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest.
  • 17. Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina) The 6-foot-9 junior got himself into better shape and had a very productive sophomore year, going for 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in only 23 minutes per outing.
  • 18. Amida Brimah (UConn) One of the nation’s elite rim protectors, Brimah averaged 3.5 blocks per game last season. While defense is his calling card, Brimah also had some good offensive outings, including a 40-point game last season.
  • 19. Ivan Rabb (Cal) Cuonzo Martin convinced Rabb to stay in the Bay Area and the Golden Bears are thrilled to have this springy 6-foot-9 big man. Rabb should rebound and defend the rim right away and his offense is improving.
  • 20. Zach Auguste (Notre Dame) Notre Dame usually utilized Auguste as their only true big man last season and he shot a ridiculous 61 percent from the field while averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Others Considered: Shawn Long (Lafayette), Markus Kennedy (SMU), Elgin Cook (Oregon), Daniel Ochefu (Villanova), Devin Williams (West Virginia)

Ranking College Basketball’s Top Front Courts

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Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.

Here are the 15 teams with the best big men:

1. Gonzaga (Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis)

The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.

As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.

2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)

When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.

3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)

On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.

4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)

I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.

RELATED: Top back courts in college basketball | Top 100 Players

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A.J. Hammons (Getty Images)

5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)

Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?

6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)

I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.

7. Kansas (Cheick Diallo, Perry Ellis, Hunter Mickelson, Carlton Bragg, Jamari Traylor, Landon Lucas)

It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.

8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)

I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.

9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)

There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

10. UNLV (Stephen Zimmerman, Dwayne Morgan, Ben Carter, Goodluck Okonoboh, Derrick Jones)

There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.

11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)

Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.

12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)

Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.

13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)

Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.

14. LSU (Ben Simmons, Craig Victor, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps, Brian Bridgewater)

Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.

15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)

This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.

Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke