No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 16 Vermont Catamounts
As with Hoosiers and Indiana, the only sure definition of Tar Heels is that they’re inhabitants of North Carolina. The name is believed to derive from the tar and pitch that early North Carolinians produced from the state’s pine forests. In the Civil War, the state’s soldiers came to be called Tar Heels in apparent tribute to their ability to hold their ground in battle. But do you really want your feet stuck in the mud when a bunch of cougars are bearing down on you?
No. 8 Creighton Blue Jays vs. No. 9 Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide’s logo shows an elephant, but the nickname more commonly refers to a phenomenon in which huge swaths of sea water turn red due to a toxic algal bloom. It’s hard to imagine this happening inside a gymnasium, but supposing it does, the blue jays can easily flit about and avoid inundation. Red tides have killed seabirds in California, but blue jays catch their food in the air, so they should manage to stay dry until the tide recedes. As in the case of the huskies and the cyclone, here we have another lucky animal that survives an imposing physical phenomenon.
No. 5 Temple Owls vs. No. 12 South Florida Bulls
The real thrill is in the play-in game, where the bulls gore the California Golden Bears after an intense tussle. Against the cagey owls, the bulls are forced into a slow-down game. It will take patience, but the feathers will eventually fly.
No. 4 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 13 Ohio Bobcats
A national-championship-caliber battle between opponents of similar size, both of which punch above their weight class. These feral foes circle warily before tearing into one another with brutal zest, sending fur and blood flying. Bobcats routinely take down fawns, but wolverines—the largest members of the weasel family, weighing as much as a medium-sized dog—can kill adult deer or even, occasionally, elk or moose. There have even been reported cases of wolverines preying on Eurasian lynx, the bobcats’ European cousins. While both sides sustain casualties, the wolverines win a close, crowd-pleasing battle to the death.
No. 6 San Diego State Aztecs vs. No. 11 North Carolina State Wolfpack
Who seeded this tournament? This is another Final Four-level tussle! The Aztecs built one of the proudest civilizations the world had seen, but any five humans would be hard-pressed to fend off a pack of wolves without the assistance of firearms. A few atlatls will hit their mark, but the confines of the arena give the beasts the narrow edge.
No. 3 Georgetown Hoyas vs. No. 14 Belmont Bruins
Hoyas are another mystery. The nickname has its roots in the “Hoya, Hoya Saxa!” chant that’s long been popular among Georgetown students. These days, it simply refers to the school’s athletic teams. Here, then, we have a rare case in which a team based on the school’s nickname could be the same as its actual basketball squad. Otto Porter and Henry Sims are brawny young men, but bruins are bears and are not susceptible to the Princeton offense. The referees in this tournament also do not call mauling fouls.
No. 7 St. Mary’s Gaels vs. No. 10 Purdue Boilermakers
Boilermakers are industrial craftsmen who wear fireproof suits and wield oxyacetylene torches capable of welding plates of metal. The tournament’s second set of Gaels will fare no better than the first.
No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 15 Detroit Titans
Jayhawks are not real birds. The nickname comes from the Jayhawkers, a ragtag pre-Civil War group of Kansas militiamen described by the New York Times as “both zealous abolitionists and violent thieves.” The university’s own website, however, insists the team’s name now refers to an imaginary hybrid of a blue jay and a sparrow hawk, so we’ll have to go with that. Both birds have rather nasty dispositions, though neither is all that large. The Titans, meanwhile, are powerful mythological gods who ruled the earth before being deposed by the Olympians. They include Uranus, god of the sky; Oceanus, an endless river encircling the world; and Cronus, who ate each of his children after they were born. I can see the Titans going far in this tournament.