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Rooney: Alumni weekend arrives with CU hoops hoping to write own piece of Buffs history

1969 squad remains CU’s last regular season conference champion

They gathered at mid-court late Saturday morning, a few dozen graying and grizzled Colorado basketball heroes of yesteryear mingling with a current Buffaloes team hoping to write their own chapter of CU basketball history to be remembered forever.

It is the annual men’s basketball reunion weekend at CU, an event that is a coveted brainchild of head coach Tad Boyle and has been executed with ever-growing efficiency by Boyle and his staff over the years. This year it’s the Sox Walseth era that is being honored, which is an era with plenty of history to mine.

Walseth’s first season at CU was in 1956-57. His last as the leader of the men’s program was the 1975-76 season. Which means some of the younger Walseth alums visiting campus this weekend had not been born yet when Walseth began his CU coaching career.

Former Colorado star Cliff Meely takes a shot during a 1969 game. Photo courtesy CU sports information office.

Walseth remains the program’s all-time leader in wins (261, ahead of Boyle’s 201) and, appropriately, the era being celebrated this weekend featured plenty of highlights, including the Ken Charlton-led clubs that made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 1962 and 1963. Yet the most pertinent example to hold up for the current Buffs, and the history the 2019-20 team hopes to chase, can be found in Walseth’s 1968-69 team.

That season remains the last time CU has won a regular season conference championship, with the Buffs aiming to end that 51-year conference drought this season. That quest got off to an uneven yet hardly crippling start last week, with CU backing an impressive win against a top-10 Oregon squad with a late collapse in a loss against Oregon State.

On Sunday, Utah visits the CU Events Center. With the Buffs scheduled to wear throwback jerseys honoring that 1969 conference championship squad, another home loss would severely damage CU’s hopes at a long-awaited repeat of history.

“There are a lot of talented teams. There’s a lot of teams that have the ability to win this league this year, but the most consistent team is going to do it,” Boyle said. “If the first weekend is any example, we’ve got some work to do in terms of that consistency. As (do) others. We’re not the only ones. It’s going to be a heck of a race. But I believe the most consistent team is going to win this league. That’s usually the case year in and year out. And it doesn’t matter what league in the country you’re talking about.”

In 1969, the Cliff Meely-led Buffs scripted a memorable chapter in CU history beyond the Big Eight Conference championship. The 21-7 record marked the first 20-win season in program history. With a scoring average of 24.9 points per game, Meely became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain 12 years earlier to win the league scoring title in his first season in the league. Meely became the first, and to date only, conference player of the year for the Buffs (Meely was the co-winner again in 1971). Meely and Gordie Tope earned first team all-conference honors and remained the only CU duo to accomplish that feat until Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie did it in 2013. Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright repeated that honor last year.

With Wright and Bey leading the way, the Buffs have a chance to claim that regular season title that has eluded the program for 51 years. But, as Boyle noted, the Buffs must eliminate the inconsistencies that have marked their game so far this season.

While the Buffs started 7-0, turnovers were an issue and defensive lapses led to consecutive losses at Kansas and at home against Northern Iowa. After surviving state rival Colorado State for an ugly win on Dec. 13, the Buffs proceeded to play their best basketball of the season in a run that included wins against nationally-ranked foes Dayton and Oregon. Then came the late collapse against Oregon State.

In 1969, the historic season ended abruptly with one bad game. In the NCAA Tournament against CSU, a CU team that shot nearly 48 percent in the other 27 games of the season struggled to a season-low 30 percent against the Rams.

As shown last week against OSU, one bad game can put a damper on championship dreams. Another loss on Sunday against the Utes wouldn’t mark the end of that 51-year regular season championship drought. Yet certainly it would make that make that drought much more likely to reach year 52.