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Diggins hoping to help UConn find its way back to top of Big East

09/10/2020, 9:45am EDT
By Mitchell Gladstone

Rahsool Diggins (above) will join a high-level UConn backcourt when he arrives in Storrs, Conn. next fall. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)

Rahsool Diggins is plenty familiar with joining a team on the rise.

When he arrived at Archbishop Wood, the Vikings were the reigning Catholic League champions for the first time ever and had won 20-plus games for the first time in more than a decade.

So, it’s only fitting that Diggins will take a similar path as a collegian after committing to Connecticut in late July. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound point guard became Dan Hurley’s first 2021 commit after opting for the Huskies over a pair of local programs in Villanova and St. Joe’s as well as a trio of bluebloods in Kansas, North Carolina and Florida.

It’s been a rough go in recent years for UConn, which missed out on trips to the NCAA tournament each of the last four seasons. That includes the first two years of the Hurley era — although the Huskies finished their 2019-20 campaign with five straight wins and a 19-12 record, not to mention the possibility of sneaking into March Madness with a run to the American Athletic Conference tournament title.

But the real draw for Diggins was a return to the Big East, beginning this season. After seven years as part of the AAC, UConn is back in the iconic conference it helped found in 1979.

And the league’s deep basketball roots are as big a reason as any why Diggins wound up a Husky.

“[Playing in the Big East and against Villanova] was always a part of the conversation,” Diggins said by phone last week. “It’s not necessarily a rivalry but that’s good competition.”

Even if the on-court rivalry has been sparing since UConn left the Big East after the 2012-13 season, it’s certainly been reignited on the recruiting trail now that the Huskies are back in the league. Hurley had set his eyes on Diggins, making the point guard his top target in the 2021 class, but the Wildcats also hoped to land the four-star prospect.

As Diggins told it, Hurley went so far as to challenge him “if he had big enough [guts] to turn down Villanova and go to UConn.”

But once the Wildcats got a commitment from Angelo Brizzi, a point guard out of western Virginia, the choice was that much clearer for Diggins.

“It was kind of annoying, just to keep having to open a computer and sit there,” Diggins said of a mostly virtual recruiting process. “But with UConn, it was a good conversation every time on Zoom. Even if it was a business meeting, I could always joke around with the coaches as if they were [Archbishop Wood coach John] Mosco.”

Mosco, a Catholic League lifer, had his own relationship with Hurley, as well as top Huskies assistant Tom Moore, long before Diggins even got to Wood. That gave him all the confidence in the world that the Huskies would be the right landing spot for his standout guard.

“I thought it was a great fit for him in the style of play and the coaching that he’s going to get,” Mosco said. “He’ll be pushed by Danny on both sides of the ball. I was happy for him and he liked them and they wanted him.”

That pushing will be most crucial on the defensive end, a place where Mosco has seen Diggins succeed, particularly during his freshman season with the Vikings.

Of course, Diggins will add to his frame once he arrives in Storrs, but it’s between the ears where he’ll need to grow most if he’s going to cut it in the Big East.

“It’s a mindset,” Mosco said. “There are a lot of times in high school when you’re not pushed to play defense because how are you going to take him out if you don’t have a kid of his quality. At the next level, they have 10 guys that are as good as you or better than you or working harder than you. You have to work from day one to get out there and focus and play defense.”

It’s not to say that Diggins can’t get better on the offensive end as well. 

That said, there’s a reason why he’s earned a spot on back-to-back All-Catholic League first teams, averaging 13.9 and 19.3 points his last two seasons, respectively.

Diggins helped the Vikings to a combined 41-14 record as Wood’s point guard during that time, as well as a Class 5A runner-up finish in 2019, the 2020 Catholic League regular-season title and a spot in the 2020 state quarterfinals before the tournament was suspended due to COVID-19.

If Diggins wants the same role at UConn, though, he’ll have work to do. The Huskies will likely return both James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney, each of whom averaged more than 19 minutes as freshmen last season, and Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin will also join the mix after sitting out this season.

But there’s a reason why Hurley wanted Diggins so desperately — he’s a battle-tested point guard with a polished offensive game, a steady jumper and a calm demeanor, all skills that will immediately translate at the next level.

“[UConn has’ always had those Northeast, downhill on-ball guards who they can play through,” Elite High School Scouting director Ari Rosenfeld said. “Not that he’s the same type of player as a Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier … but mentality-wise, you’ve got that same kind of unflappability and composure that I think made those guys iconic.”

In certain ways, Diggins doesn’t fit the stylistic mold of that lead guard for the Huskies. He’s not necessarily an elite bucket-getter in the way Chris Smith, UConn’s all-time leading scorer, was in the early 90s. Nor is he a flashy playmaker like Walker, who will forever be remembered for his stepback jumper.

Instead, Diggins is more of a smooth, all-around operator: he certainly can score from all three levels, with a reliable outside jumper and ability to get into the lane and finish around the rim. He’s an excellent distributor who’s used to playing with Division I talent around him in both high school and college, and he can defend talented lead guards as well. In the Huskies’ deep backcourt, he might not have to be the guy, but certainly one of them.

But like those big names who came before him, Diggins will have the same goals — leading the Huskies back to the pinnacle of their sport and reaffirming to the Big East that UConn will be a force for years to come.

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