From Cinderella to Saluki: Clarence Rupert brings March Madness magic to Carbondale

September 26, 2022

In March, the little-known Saint Peter’s Peacocks became the “Cinderella story” of the NCAA Tournament, upsetting No. 2 Kentucky, No. 7 Murray State and No. 3 Purdue on their way to the first Elite 8 run by a No. 15 seed team in tournament history.

Clarence Rupert, who started all of the Peacocks’ tournament games, remembers the experience well.

“That was the goal from the jump, to make it to The Tournament,” Rupert said. “I’ve been watching that tournament since forever, so for me to make it that far and actually to play in it was a real blessing for me.”

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Rupert was a true freshman forward for Saint Peter’s, and like many of his teammates and coaches, he took advantage of the national fame and transferred to a larger school. The transfer portal landed him at Southern Illinois University.

Saluki men’s basketball head coach Bryan Mullins knows what it takes to make it to “The Dance.” He was a player on SIU’s Sweet 16 team in 2007, and was on the coaching staff at Loyola-Chicago when it made its own Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018.

In Rupert, Mullins sees a player that could potentially help bring similar success to Carbondale for the first time since that 2007 season.

“[Rupert] impacts the game in a lot of ways that do not show up on the stat sheet,” Mullins said. “I love the passion that he plays with. His team’s success in postseason motivates him to want to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”

Run Baby Run Arena in Jersey City, New Jersey, the home of the Peacocks, seats 3,200 people for men’s basketball games. Its capacity is closer to SIU’s Davies Gym, which the Salukis use for practice, than the Banterra Center, which seats 2.5 times as many fans.

On the other hand, Jersey City has a population of around 262,000 people, compared to just 25,000 in Carbondale; the difference between the two schools’ environments could not be much greater.

“Coming from a city to like a rural area like this, it’s a big adjustment for me because I’m not used to it,” Rupert, a Philadelphia native, said. “I’ve been in a city my whole life.”

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The first two games of Saint Peter’s March Madness run were at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, before advancing to Rupert’s hometown of Philadelphia for the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds. Even though going from the Northeastern United States to the Midwest is a big adjustment, Rupert had plenty of positives to take away from his most recent time in the area, including a win over Murray State, which joins the Missouri Valley Conference this year.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore has been touted for his physical style of play. While his scoring numbers don’t light up a box score, his toughness and passion were praised coming into Carbondale.

“Clarence is just scratching the surface of what type of player he can be,” Mullins said. “He has a great feel for the game and plays with toughness and competitiveness at all times.”

Mullins knows well from his time playing at Southern in the mid-2000s, as well as his experience coaching in the conference since 2013, that the Missouri Valley Conference favors tough, physical play. Mullins was a two-time Valley Defensive Player of the Year, and made the MVC All-Defensive Team all four years.

That brand of basketball makes Rupert feel at home in the Missouri Valley.

“I’ve always been physical,” Rupert said. “I’ve always been tough my whole life. So coming into a conference where it is physically tough, I feel like I fit in perfectly honestly. They’re playing my game now, so we’re gonna see how they play me.”

Joining a new team would obviously come with the challenge of getting integrated with the system, and with the players themselves. So far, the transition has worked out well.

“We’re all a family,” Rupert said. “We’ll all be in each other’s rooms on Sundays, Thursday watching the football games. We all hang out with each other before and after practice.”

Rupert joins a Saluki frontcourt that features J.D. Muila, as well as freshmen Scottie Ebube and Cade Hornecker. No matter what the former Peacock’s role will be as he begins his Saluki career, he is prepared to help his team.

“My role is anything they want me to be,” Rupert said. “I’ll go on the court and defend. If you want me to score the ball, I’ll score the ball. If you want me to grab somebody a water bottle, I can grab a water bottle. I’m just here to do whatever they want me to do.”

The first Saluki men’s basketball game will be on Nov. 7 against Little Rock at the Banterra Center. The team typically hosts an exhibition game in late October, although details for this year’s game have not yet been announced.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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