Florida State’s Ojo among ACC’s most improved players

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2017, file photo, Florida State's Michael Ojo laughs before an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in Syracuse, N.Y. Ojo saved his best for his final year at Florida State. The senior is shooting close to 80 percent from the foul line and is a contender for the ACC's Most Improved Player award. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Florida State’s most popular player isn’t one of the Seminoles leading scorers. That honor belongs to workmanlike senior center Michael Ojo.

The 7-foot-1 Ojo’s improved contributions on the court have helped the 15th-ranked Seminoles assure themselves a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

Ojo has made marked improvement after sitting out last year due to a knee injury. After averaging a meager 1.9 points and shooting a woeful 40.2 percent from the free-throw line his first three seasons, the native of Lagos, Nigeria, goes into Saturday’s game against No. 25 Miami averaging 5.2 points and 79.4 percent from the foul line.

It is Ojo’s turnaround has him in the discussion for most improved player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

”He is shooting well from the line but the bigger thing is the effect he has on the game that doesn’t show up in the statistical column,” coach Leonard Hamilton said. ”He is being physical and has been very effective on defense in the lane.”

Ojo credits his defensive strides to watching film and seeing the game develop from the bench while rehabbing last season. The big man feels like he has developed into a smarter player and has better overall court awareness during the course of a game.

He is also quick on his feet – with jokes.

When asked if he believes he has been among the ACC’s most improved players, Ojo laughed and then replied, ”if only I could make more layups.”

Ojo’s gregarious personality is a major reason for his popularity. Hamilton has often said Ojo could run for student-body president and win without campaigning.

”He’s going to send me a Christmas card. 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,” Hamilton said.

The extra year at Florida State also allowed Ojo to work toward his master’s degree in international studies, which he will earn by the end of summer.

”My injury was very unfortunate but fortunately for me it happened,” he said. ”Now I have an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.”

Florida State (23-7, 11-6 ACC) still has plenty to play for before the NCAA brackets are set on March 12. A win on Saturday over the Hurricanes (20-9, 10-7), who they beat 75-57 in Miami on Feb. 1, would earn them a double-bye to next week’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, and 12 victories in conference play for only the third time.

A win also would wrap up the Seminoles’ first unbeaten home season since 1975-76. They are 17-0 at the Tucker Center this season and have won 20 straight dating back to last season.

One thing that will be missing from Ojo’s final home game will be his family. He left Nigeria in January of 2012 to attend prep school in Tennessee before arriving at Florida State. Ojo said he would like to return home eventually but realized he had to come to the United States in order to secure a better future.

Miami coach Jim Larranaga believes Ojo has a bright future and the physical intangibles to play professionally.

”I would say he’s destined to play in the NBA one day. I don’t know if it will be immediately,” Larranaga said. ”But a guy who has made as much progress as he has and offers you a very specific set of physical characteristics, there’s always a place for a guy like that.”

AP sports writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed.

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