In time, maybe March 13 will be remembered in Colorado basketball lore for another reason, perhaps as the day in 2019 when a young and up-and-coming bunch of Buffaloes began an improbable run to a Pac-12 Conference tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Until that happens, however, Wednesday's opening day of the league tournament will hold a different meaning for longtime Buffs fans. When fifth-seeded CU tips off the tournament Wednesday afternoon against Cal, the Buffs will do so on the 50th anniversary of an NCAA Tournament appearance by the last CU team to win a regular season conference championship.
In the weeks leading up to the Buffs' first-round NCAA Tournament date in Manhattan, Kan., on March 13, 1969, the Buffs had hoped their Big Eight championship would lead to a shot at a national power like UCLA. Instead, the Buffs traveled to Kansas to meet a rival from about an hour up the road in Fort Collins.
One of the greatest seasons in CU history ended abruptly (sort of) with a 64-56 loss against Colorado State.
"I remember how the whole town seemed to get excited about what we were doing," said long time Colorado Rockies team chaplain Bo Mitchell, a sophomore on that team.
In those days freshmen were ineligible for varsity play, yet even during the previous 1967-68 season, the freshman class knew it might be on to something special when a group led by Mitchell, 7-foot-2 Pueblo native Ron Smith, and Tim Wedgewood often got the best of the varsity club in scrimmages. When a Chicago native named Cliff Meely, who had played the 1967-68 in Sterling at Northeastern Junior College, joined that mix, coach Sox Walseth suddenly boasted a potent rotation.
Meely put together a season for the ages. His scoring average of 23.8 trails only his own 28.0 mark from two years later among the best in CU history. Meely's rebounding average of 12.0 remains the fifth-best single-season mark in team history, and he was a unanimous selection as the Big Eight Conference Player of the Year.
Walseth, who earned his third conference Coach of the Year honor that winter, was known for being reluctant to start sophomores. He relented enough to watch that season's rookie class help power the Buffs to a 14-2 start.
"It's certainly a time I remember clearly and look back on fondly," Mitchell said. "We all heard about Cliff, and then he looked just so smooth and amazing in practice. And Gordie Tope was amazing too. But it seemed like Meely was way ahead of everybody. He was so smoo th with everything he did. He was a star before he even started playing college ball."
In a quirk of the times, Kansas standout Jo Jo White, who went on to star with the Boston Celtics, saw his eligibility expire at the semester break. Despite losing Smith to academic issues down the stretch, the Buffs clinched the Big Eight title with their then-team record 20th win of the season against Missouri on March 8. Five days later, they collapsed in a 64-56 loss against CSU in which a Buffs team that shot .470 for the season struggled to a season-low 30 percent.
CU's shooting percentage jumped to .569 two days later in a consolation win against Texas A&M, though the win offered little consolation in the years to come. That youthful core was unable to repeat the run they put together that winter, and 50 years later the Buffs have yet to win another regular season conference crown.
"It was a dream come true for me because I grew up watching CU football and basketball, and I knew from the time I was just a kid I wanted to play for CU if I was good enough," said Boulder native Ron Maulsby, another sophomore on that team. "I was able to make the team even though I didn't play a lot that year. It was a great team to be a part of. Kind of a sophomore-junior dominated team and we were a close team.
"We thought if we did it once we were going to do it every year. Of course, we didn't."