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NCAA Tournament: Rupert, Whalen give Cinderella Saint Peter's some Philly ties

03/24/2022, 5:00pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Back in the fall, Clarence Rupert called Ryan Whalen with a minor problem.

The Saint Peter’s freshman had just had his bio go up on the school’s athletics website, but there was a problem. It identified him as being from Virginia — which, to be fair, is where he’d spent his teen years, going to Miller School of Albemarle in Charlottesville and playing for Newport News-based Boo Williams on the Nike EYBL circuit.

But that’s not where Rupert calls home. Not really.

“He called me, he’s like ‘Coach, you know I’m from Philly, why do they keep putting Virginia?’” the Peacocks assistant coach said by phone Thursday afternoon. “I’m like, ‘Big C, I’ll take care of it, don’t worry about it big fella.’ 

“He’s very proud of his Philly roots, for sure.”

Both Rupert and Whalen have strong connections to the City of Brotherly Love, making their appearance with Saint Peter’s in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament East Regional semifinal — also known as the Sweet 16 — on Friday night against Purdue that much more special.

Rupert — who wasn’t made available for this story, the NCAA Tournament’s typical open-locker-room policy closed off due to COVID, press limited to who’s brought to the podium — spent his childhood years calling North Philadelphia home, moving down to the Old Dominion state before his teenage years. 

Clarence Rupert (above) is from Philadelphia but moved to Virginia before high school. (Photo courtesy Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

He spent his first three years in high school at Maury High School in Norfolk, before transferring over to Miller School, repeating his junior year and spending two seasons playing under Jack Meriwether at the co-ed school, which has both boarding and commuting students. 

This year was his first at Saint Peter’s, and what a freshman year it’s been. The Peacocks have been the Cinderella story of the tournament, the No. 15 seed and MAAC champions who beat Kentucky and Murray State in the span of three days to earn their trip to Philadelphia. They’ve got a mustachioed junior guard with sponsorships from Buffalo Wild Wings and a head coach with a terrific basketball background of his own in Shaheen Holloway, whose proclamation about his roster went viral last week:

I got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we're scared of anything? You think we're worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out?

Throw a little Philly into the mix, too.

“You know Philadelphia basketball players when you see them,” Whalen said. “They play hard, they’ve got a chip on their shoulder, they want to win.”

Rupert’s played in 28 out of Saint Peter’s 32 games, averaging 4.3 ppg and 2.6 rpg in just above 13 minutes per contest. There have been a couple double-digit scoring outings, including 13 against Manhattan, with a tops of nine rebounds in a single game. 

His five starts have all come in the postseason, the last five games — all wins — with 13 points in the two NCAA Tournament victories. That earned him the ability to play his first collegiate game in his hometown, the biggest one in program history, his name penciled into the “probable starters” section on the game notes.

“For Clarence to come back home is tremendous for him," Holloway said during Saint Peter’s pregame press conference on Thursday. “He's super excited. He's super happy. I'm happy for him.”

“We know this is Clarence's hometown,” senior forward KC Ndefo said. “He's very hyped about coming back home and representing back home and being on this big stage his freshman year. 

“Having a kid from Philadelphia, they have toughness, too, so just having him on this team and aboard here is just a great thing.”

Ryan Whalen (above) is from the Jersey shore but considers his time in Philadelphia to be critical upon his journey to being a Division I college coach. (Photo courtesy SPU Athletics)

Whalen had his own journey over the years, from growing up in West Long Branch, N.J. to going to Saint Joseph’s University, working at Towson, Iona, Seton Hall and Eastern Kentucky before arriving at Saint Peter’s with Holloway four years ago.

The son of longtime high school coach Joe Whalen, now the head girls’ basketball coach at St. Thomas Aquinas (N.J.), Ryan Whalen grew up around hoops. He met Holloway for the first time when he was eight years old, Holloway playing for the elder Whalen at St. Patrick’s (N.J.) before starring at Seton Hall.

When it became clear to Whalen that the NBA wasn’t in his future, he turned his attention to coaching, basing his entire decision to come down to City Ave and attend Hawk Hill for the chance to work under Phil Martelli, spending time as a JV player and student assistant under the former longtime St. Joe’s boss.

Now he’s in the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a full assistant coach, having been there previously while on Kevin Willard’s staff at Seton Hall as Director of Basketball Operations. This spring has been an experience unlike any other thus far.

“It’s been fulfilling, it’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “All I can say is, our guys deserve this, and everybody looks at it like it’s this Cinderella story, and it is because of the seed and everything, but the thing I love about our guys is they’re not shell-shocked by this moment. They honestly believe that we’re supposed to be here.”

Understandably, Whalen said he’s been deluged by calls and texts, including plenty of ticket-seekers, to the point where he’s had to put his phone aside and focus on Purdue, the No. 3 seed who rolls in with a 29-7 record. 

Martelli won’t be there — he’s with Michigan, playing its own Sweet 16 game Thursday night against Villanova — but quite a few other familiar faces will be.

“Even though I’m not from Philly, this is where my college basketball career started,” Whalen said. “Philadelphia’s obviously a very special place to me because I met my wife here, my wife and I got married here — shoot, when we first got the job at Saint Peter’s, I was living in Bucks County, commuting about an hour-and-a-half every day, each way. 

“To be able to [play in the NCAA Tournament in] a place that I called home for four years while I was in college, to have people that mean a lot to me in my life to be here and watch it, it’s been really cool and it’s going to be really cool tomorrow night.”

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