After four frontcourt players graduated from the Columbia men’s basketball team last spring, there was little question as to who would take on the role of the Lions’ big man this season.
Junior Mark Cisco, who started about half of last year’s games despite multiple injuries, is the Light Blue’s only experienced center. As such, he will—alongside junior forward John Daniels—take on added responsibilities in the Lions’ starting frontcourt.
“They’re going through a little role change in understanding that as a starter you have to bring it every night on both ends of the floor,” head coach Kyle Smith said.
On the offensive end, Cisco has been working to improve his versatility as a low-post scorer, even staying in New York over the summer to practice with the team—something he had not done before.
Working with center/forward coach Carlin Hartman, Cisco believes that during the last five months he made big strides in developing his game.
“Over the summer, my goal was to improve my left hand,” Cisco said. “I went in there, I practiced, and I feel like I’ve done a good job of that. It’s obviously going to show in the games, and it’s obviously with a lot of help from Hartman that that happened.”
The 6-foot-9 center shot just under 60 percent from the field last year, and this season he hopes to fulfill his role as one of Columbia’s primary scorers, supplementing the points from junior guard Brian Barbour and senior guard Noruwa Agho.
Though last year’s team did not have a problem getting baskets, averaging more than 70 points per game, it struggled to stop opponents from running up the score themselves. According to Cisco, the team’s leading shot-blocker, defense has been the emphasis so far this preseason, both for the team as a whole and for him individually.
“I think I need to improve my defense,” he said. “Once I do that, I think being a good defender will help me in becoming an all-around better player.”
Making stops will be especially important for the Columbia frontcourt when it goes up against Harvard’s senior forward Keith Wright—the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year—and Yale’s senior forward Greg Mangano, who topped the conference in rebounds and blocks last year.
Cisco sees the opportunity to face these two powerhouses as a challenge, one that his teammates think he is prepared to face.
“I think he’s made a lot of jumps defensively, in terms of just being able to play 25, 30 minutes and not get into foul trouble against the guys like Keith Wright and Mangano,” Agho said. “I think that’s huge because if he can do that, then he’s on the court more and his offensive is only going to get better.”
Smith emphasized the importance of Cisco’s acceptance of the responsibilities that come with being the team’s lead center, including acting as a mentor to teammates.
Going to practice early to work with the young players, Cisco has fully embraced his position as a role model for freshman center Cory Osetkowski and freshman forward Skylar Scrivano, both of whom will likely earn time on the court this season.
Cisco, a New Jersey native, had a distinguished career at West Morris Mendham High School before being recruited to Columbia, where he started nine games and played in all 28 as a freshman.
Last year, even while struggling with a concussion and knee injury, Cisco set himself apart as a scorer and rebounder. Now that he is healthy, he hopes to be the Light Blue’s go-to man in the paint.
Helping to achieve this end will be the chemistry between Cisco and the other members of the frontcourt.
“This is the third year we’ve spent significant time practicing and playing together,” Daniels said. “I think we really know each other’s tendencies. We complement each other well.”
Though Harvard and Yale have received the preseason press for having the best big men, the Lions hope to assert themselves as a force under the basket, and Cisco’s teammates believe he has the skill to make that happen.
“He’s a big body, he gets offensive rebounds, he’s always around the rim, he works hard, and he’s smart,” Agho said. “He knows what he’s doing. If we can keep him on the floor, which I think we will, his progression will show naturally.”