By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS - During the three-plus weeks he was away from the University of Cincinnati basketball team, Robert Whaley looked at game tape of himself and couldn't believe it was the same player.
"It was like it wasn't even me out there," Whaley said Thursday. "I looked at the tape and I was soft."
Whaley, a 6-foot-10 junior center who was reinstated to the team on Tuesday after quitting on Feb. 23, said he's determined to return to the court and attack the basket, rather than settle for jump shots and jump hooks, as he did so often in the past.
His teammates say he has been playing well in practice.
"He's been OK," said UC coach Bob Huggins. "He's playing a little harder."
Whaley, who averages 6.6 points and 2.9 rebounds, talked with reporters at Nationwide Arena Thursday, the day before the Bearcats play East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"It was time for me to come back," Whaley said. "I missed the game. I really think I can help the team."
Huggins said he didn't know if Whaley would play today.
"We're not going to screw up anything that's going well for us," Huggins said. "But if something is not going well, then, you know, we may play him. Honestly, I don't know."
Whaley is eager to go.
"I expect to play," Whaley said, "and I think I'll tear it up."
The two-time junior college All-American said he left the team because he was "mentally frustrated."
"I was so frustrated I couldn't play my game," he said. "I had to get myself right so I could help my team."
Whaley said he needed time to decide if he wanted to continue to play basketball.
"I asked myself, 'Is this the right path for me? Is this what God had in store for me, to play ball?'
"The reality is that I think I can make it in basketball. I've dedicated my whole life to basketball ever since I was in kindergarten. It's been a long time."
Whaley said he continued to go to class, lift weights and run while he was away from the team. He said he talked to Huggins every day.
"I didn't understand him and I don't think he understood me," Whaley said. "But we had time to talk."
Whaley said he apologized to his teammates and to the coaching staff for leaving, and was welcomed back "with open arms."
Said forward Armein Kirkland: "He's making strides. He's getting better. It's hard to come in and play for Huggs the first year, especially when you've been doing things your way your whole life. Everybody has to deal with (Huggins) being the boss. It's his way or no way. I think Rob is just starting to realize that now."
Senior guard Tony Bobbitt, who left the team briefly last year only to return this season to become a team leader, said he's pulling for Whaley.
"I think that brings us closer together, bringing Rob back," Bobbitt said. "I go to bat for him all the time. I want to see Rob go out the way I went out."
Whaley said he believes his time away from the team was a good decision that will make him a better player.
"That remains to be seen, doesn't it?" Huggins said.
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