On Thursday afternoon, the Wisconsin Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor will square off with the Montana Grizzlies, who are led by high-scoring guard Will Cherry. But what if, instead of this pedestrian display of human athletes on the basketball court, we got to see a pack of fearless, stocky badgers tear into a bunch of voracious 600-pound grizzly bears? Now that’s a No. 4 vs. No. 13 matchup that I’d tune in for.
We’ve put the madness back into March Madness by creating a parallel tournament of hypothetical showdowns between real-life incarnations of the teams’ nicknames. In each of the blurbs below, we’ve given our take on what would happen if, say, a group of blue devils ran across some mountain hawks in a dark alley. But since we’re not omniscient, we’ve also included a series of polls, allowing you to make your own picks. Check back on Friday to see which teams advanced and vote on the next round. The results of the real NCAA tournament will have no bearing on this competition. We’ll crown our own Final Four of nicknames and declare the ultimate NCAA mascot-fight champion.
A few explanatory ground rules:
1) These fights are based on the teams’ nicknames, not their mascots per se. For our purposes, the buckeyes are a team of nuts an inch in diameter—not a bunch of Brutuses. Where a team’s nickname is ambiguous—as with the Mississippi State Delta Devils or the Murray State Racers—the school’s logo or mascot can, however, inform us as to the identity of the nickname’s referent.
2) A team can win by devouring, dismembering, killing, incapacitating, or otherwise subduing its opponent—but not by just evading it indefinitely. A blackbird may be able to wear down its foe by flitting just out of reach, Muhammad Ali-style, but eventually it has to make a stand if it wants to advance. An exception is made when your opponent is a weather system. If you merely survive a cyclone, then that is considered sufficient for victory.
3) Unless otherwise indicated, the games are five-on-five. Notable exceptions include collective nouns—a wolfpack, as in the case of North Carolina State, typically consists of roughly eight wolves—and forces of nature, which are assumed to travel solo.
4) The matchups take place in a basketball gym. This gives the competition a fighting chance against gators, who would hold an unfair advantage in the water, and musketeers, whose long-range marksmanship would render them unstoppable on a battlefield.
Now, let’s get on with the action.
No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 16 Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils
The Delta Devils may have blown a huge lead in Tuesday night’s play-in game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, but we don’t care about on-court results in this tournament. Though intelligence on the delta devils is scant, the team’s logo depicts a pointy-faced orange man in a green cape who can produce flames from his bare hands. It’s hard to see some hilltoppers—near as we can reckon, people who live on hills—standing up to that sort of barrage. Having torched the Hilltoppers, these mysterious Southern demons will have little trouble with Kentucky’s felines. In real life, it must be said, these “wildcats” don’t actually look that ferocious.
No. 8 Iowa State Cyclones vs. No. 9 Connecticut Huskies
Few mortal creatures can match up with a 60-mile-wide force of nature that lays waste to entire cities. Yet cyclones are maddeningly inconsistent, producing tidal floods and gale-force winds one day and petering into a drizzle the next. And if anyone can withstand the blow, it’s a team of huskies—swift, hardy dogs bred to pull sleds halfway across Alaska in a blizzard. This is just the worst possible first-round draw for the cyclones—a really tough break for a phenomenon that could’ve made it to the Final Four.
No. 5 Wichita State Shockers vs. No. 12 Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Shockers, so named because Wichita State players used to offset their tuition bills by “shocking” wheat, are Midwestern farm boys. (The team’s mascot, on the other hand, is a scowling, human-size shock of wheat.) They may be on the doughy side, but they’re resourceful. And while Dodge truck ads have done an admirable job imbuing rams with an aura of potency, let’s face it: They’re male sheep. This round goes to humankind.
No. 4 Indiana Hoosiers vs. No. 13 New Mexico State Aggies
A Hoosier is an inhabitant of Indiana. An aggie is someone engaged in the agricultural trades, or perhaps a student aspiring to be so engaged. Lacking sufficient grounds to make a judgment, we turn to the Aggies’ logo, which is armed with a pair of six-shooters. Those guns should ensure that Indiana leaves this matchup with five fewer inhabitants.
No. 6 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels vs. No. 11 Colorado Buffaloes
In this corner, we have a one-ton beast with 2-foot-long horns. And over here we have a Yosemite Sam-like character who looks old enough to have fought for the Confederacy. You can run, Reb, but you can’t run fast enough.
No. 3 Baylor Bears vs. No. 14 South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Jackrabbits are elusive, and they’ll try to exhaust the bears by hopping all over the gym. The bunnies, though, will eventually have to confront their much larger and fiercer antagonists. When they do, it won’t go well.
No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 10 Xavier Musketeers
At close range, Irish pugilists can be dangerous, raining down blows and incomprehensible curses. But Athos, Porthos, and Co. are not about to be lured into a barroom brawl. Versatile and well-armed, they’ll make quick work of the lads from the Emerald Isle.
No. 2 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 15 Lehigh Mountain Hawks
By the nicknames-not-mascots rule, the Blue Devils are not goateed men in blue masks, but members of the French Army’s mountain infantry unit, nicknamed les diables bleus. According to Duke’s university archives, they also wore flowing capes and jaunty berets. If Lehigh were still the Engineers—as they were until an ill-advised 1995 name change—they might just be clever enough to prevail, perhaps by rigging the stadium scoreboard to fall on their heavily armed foes. But while a mountain hawk is an adroit hunter in its native environment, it’s the hunted here.