TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – If Michael Ojo had his way, “March Madness” would last until May.
Ojo and fellow senior Jarquez Smith will celebrate Senior Day before Florida State’s home finale against Miami (4 p.m., ACC Network) on Saturday, and each knows his time as a Seminole is nearing its conclusion.
“It will be a little emotional,” Ojo said, “seeing the last time you play in front of your home fans here in Tallahassee.
“But it’s part of growing up, I think.”
Both Ojo and Smith know a thing or two about growing up.
Ojo arrived in Tallahassee – and the United States – as a 19-year-old freshman from Lagos, Nigeria.
But, in his mind, “I was still a little boy,” he said.
Same goes for Smith, the baby in a family of 11 children.
Smith is now 22 years old. His oldest brother is 51.
“I came in as a really big kid,” Smith said. “Time is winding down. I’m about to be in the real world. Can’t be playing around all the time.”
Still, Smith and Ojo can play a little while longer. The Seminoles will finish the regular season on Saturday, then it’s off to Brooklyn, N.Y., for the ACC men’s basketball tournament.
After that, for the first time in their careers, the two seniors will play in the NCAA tournament. FSU assured as much by racking up six wins over top-25 opponents and carving a place for itself among the ACC’s upper echelon this season.
“We’re very excited,” Smith said. “But we have to take it further than just making it there. We have more things to do. We’re trying to make it to the Final Four.”
‘He’s never met a stranger’
It’s been five years since Ojo has been to Lagos, Nigeria.
Which means it’s been five years since he’s seen his mother, Elizabeth, or his older sisters, Funmi and Bukola.
Ojo left Nigeria not knowing much about college basketball, or, for that matter, college. But at 7-foot-1 and with a body already pushing near 300 pounds, he seemed a natural fit for the hardwood.
So, with the goal of using basketball to support his family, Ojo moved to the United States in 2012 and played one year of high-school basketball at Tennessee Temple Academy in Chattanooga before signing with Florida State.
“I do miss my mom,” Ojo said. “But it’s a sacrifice I have to make for a better future. (I told her) I have to go, go learn, experience life and become a man.”
Since getting over an early bout of shyness, Ojo has emerged as one of the most popular and gregarious members of the team.
He’s mastered the art of self-deprecating humor (the fifth-year senior joked Thursday that he’s been in Tallahassee for 15 years, and he’s previously told reporters that he’s working on his 3-point shot) and doesn’t mind taking a jab at a teammate’s soft spot.
And snapping selfies with the larger-than-life Ojo has become something of a rite of passage for FSU students and fans. He is, after all, rather easy to spot around campus.
“I always tell people he could probably run for student-body president and win without campaigning,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He’s never met a stranger.”
In his final year at Florida State, Ojo has become pretty useful on the basketball court, too.
He’s averaging career highs in points per game (5.2), rebounds per game (3.4) and minutes per game (12.6) while starting on Florida State’s best team in at least five years.
But Ojo’s proudest accomplishment has come at the free-throw line, where he has evolved from one of FSU’s worst free-throw shooters (he averaged 39.2 percent combined during his first three seasons) into one of its best (79.4 percent, second only freshman Jonathan Isaac).
And, in an ironic twist, that improvement came as a result of one of the most difficult periods of Ojo’s career.
Prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, what was to be Ojo’s senior year, the big man tore the meniscus in his left knee and had reconstructive surgery in October.
For most athletes, a meniscus tear is significant, if not devastating – depending on the severity, players can often return to action in about six weeks.
Ojo hoped that would be the case, but, given his size, the knee took longer to heal.
He missed the entire season.
“My injury was very unfortunate,” Ojo said. But, in the same breath, he reeled off a laundry list of unexpected benefits that came during his year of recovery.
Most importantly, it allowed Ojo to further devote himself in the classroom, graduate with his degree in International Affairs and get started on his Master’s program.
Meanwhile, at FSU’s Basketball Training Center, Ojo could pull overtime in the film room. All the extra studying gave Ojo a better understanding of the game, and his bird’s-eye view allowed him to share observations that his teammates might otherwise have missed.
The only thing Ojo could do on the basketball court? Free throws.
He could practice them without stressing his knee and now estimates that he attempted thousands during his year away.
Ojo’s improvement at the free-throw line goes beyond simple percentages. Just last week at Clemson, with the Seminoles and Tigers locked in a back-and-forth affair, Ojo calmly drained two free throws in front of a hostile crowd with 2:25 to go in the game.
He was 4 for 4 at the free-throw line that day, and the Seminoles went on to win by two points.
“The first three years, if I’m coming this way, the free throw is going that way. It was like magnets,” Ojo said with a laugh. “It only took me five years before I could shoot 80 percent. Maybe in the next five years, I’ll shoot 100 percent. You never know.”
It’s that sense of humor and thoughtful personality that Hamilton says he’ll miss the most.
Hamilton has coached hundreds of players over the course of a 35-year coaching career. But there’s never been one quite like Michael Ojo.
“He’s going to send me a Christmas card,” Hamilton said. “He’s going to call me on Father’s Day. All the things that sometimes people take for granted, Michael seems to think are important.
“He’s 7-1, he’s 300 pounds with 4-percent body fat. [But] that’s not the unique thing about him. The unique thing about him is who he is and what he is about as an individual. And we’re very proud of him.”
‘Always had a Seminole in his heart’
Jarquez Smith can pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with Florida State.
It was Jan. 14, 2012, and Smith, a native of Haddock, Ga., was in town for an unofficial visit to see the Seminoles host the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The game turned out to be one of the most memorable in the program’s recent history: Deividas Dulkys scored 32 points and made eight 3-pointers as the unranked Seminoles routed No. 3 UNC, 90-57.
And when FSU’s student section rushed the floor to celebrate, Smith led the charge.
“Jarquez was the first one on the floor,” Hamilton said. “He was out there in the crowd just jumping up and down and waving. I wish I had a picture of that.”
“It was that game,” Smith added. “It was really packed and I loved the atmosphere.
“That’s when I knew.”
Over the last four years, Smith has brought a big, physical presence beneath the basket for the Seminoles.
In a way, it’s a perfect role for Smith: Being the youngest of 11 siblings means he’s been asserting himself in a crowd for his entire life.
“It had its ups and downs, being the youngest,” Smith said. “A lot of them were a lot older than me, so I got bullied around.
“But all of that stopped once I got a little bigger.”
“A little bigger” eventually became 6-foot-9, 236 pounds and, as a senior in high school, Smith fielded a multitude of scholarship offers from college basketball programs from across the southeast.
And he might have ended up somewhere else, were it not for that fateful visit to the Tucker Center.
“He’s always had a Seminole in his heart,” Hamilton said.
That heart might be Smith’s biggest asset.
The senior has embraced his role as energy-booster off the bench, maximizing his minutes with intensity as a defender.
In addition to his 4.5 points per game this season, Smith is also a deft shot blocker. His 29 blocks are the third-most on the team, and he’ll leave FSU among the school’s top 10 shot-blockers of all-time.
But, like Ojo, Hamilton is more pleased with who Smith is away from the court than by anything he does on it.
“He’s just a great guy,” Hamilton said. “A gentleman, easy-going.”
‘A chance to make something happen’
Senior Day of course marks the end of Ojo’s and Smith’s playing days in Tallahassee, but it’s hardly the end of their careers.
And their best days may still lie ahead.
A win over Miami on Saturday would give FSU a double-bye in next week’s ACC tournament, where the Seminoles can still improve their positioning in the NCAA tournament.
After missing out on the Big Dance for the first three years of their careers (or, in Ojo’s case, four years), both of FSU’s seniors are planning to make it a March to remember.
“Now we have a chance to make something happen, so I’m excited,” Ojo said. “Any chance you get now, (you want) to wear that jersey as long as you can. I wish we played until May. But it’s been a fun ride for me.”
When that ride finally ends, each will leave the program knowing that they were part of the team that brought FSU back to the NCAA tournament after a four-year absence.
And they’ll leave behind a grateful group of teammates and coaches.
“They’ve been great citizens, great student-athletes,” Hamilton said. “They have been proud representatives of Florida State University in everything that they’ve done. They’ve made us all very proud of them in their conduct on and off the court.
“They’ve given us four great years and we’re going to miss those guys.”