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A Guide To Filling Out Your March Madness Bracket Using Mascots

Every March, many people with zero affinity for college basketball fill out a bracket, lured to play by the office pool. A lot of strategies are possible. You could just pick the favorite to win each game. You could just pick schools you know of or like for non-athletic reasons — maybe make every university that wait-listed you go down in the first round.

But one common strategy I know of is to pick by teams that have your favorite mascot. Indeed, this strategy can pay off: I know for a fact that last year, the office pool at a widely read business news site was won by someone who had filled out a bracket by picking the cutest animal. The UConn Huskies, in addition to being so cute, won the tourney as a No. 7 seed.

But “most adorable” is but one way to pick a mascot-oriented bracket. Luckily, we have a database of mascots. Here, I took four different mascot-themed strategies, played out the tournament game by game and compared the results to odds in our March Madness predictions. (This is a somewhat subjective process; for instance, which is cuter: a pirate or a Spartan?)

A mascot bracket based on cuteness

Mrs Philip Dee in 1936 with her pet badger at her home in Hanworth, Middlesex. The badger shares a hutch with a pet fox, which belongs to the Tannett family who live next door to Mrs Dee.

Mrs. Philip Dee in 1936 with her pet badger at her home in Hanworth, England. The badger shared a hutch with a pet fox, which belonged to the Tannett family, neighbors of Dee.

Reg Speller / Fox Photos / Getty Images

Verdict: Weirdly, a decent way of picking a bracket.

Cuteness Final Four (with each team’s actual FiveThirtyEight probability of making it there):

  • Midwest: Northeastern University Huskies (No. 14 seed, <1 percent)
  • West: University of Wisconsin Badgers (No. 1 seed, 33 percent)
  • East: U.C. Irvine Anteaters (No. 13 seed, <1 percent)
  • South: Gonzaga Bulldogs (No. 2 seed, 24 percent)

Championship game: Badgers vs. Bulldogs

Winner: University of Wisconsin Badgers (Actual 10 percent chance of winning it all)

Notes: To disclose my priors, I’m a dog person, but one who is sympathetic to wildcats. And it would have been all too easy to give Villanova and Kentucky a free ride to the top. But I have standards. Huskies are cuter than wildcats, as are anteaters. Just Google “baby anteater.” I’m right on this one. Here’s a taste:

A baby giant anteater at the London Zoo in 2005.

A baby giant anteater at the London zoo in 2005.

Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Still, this is legitimately a good way to win, provided you spend as much time as I did Googling for frolicking badgers. With a 10 percent chance, the Badgers have one of the best shots at winning it all. But they’re not Kentucky, so going for them is probably a good way to get a unique winner, an advantage in any March Madness pool. Plus, if you’re a cat person, this may be an even better bracket. The people who pick tournaments by adorableness are on to something.

A mascot bracket based on who would win in a fight

Pirates boarding a ship and overpower the crew -- 18th century.


Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty Images

Verdict: A bad way of picking a bracket.

Final Four:

  • Midwest: Hampton University Pirates (No. 16 seed, <1 percent)
  • West: Texas Southern University Tigers (No. 15 seed, <1 percent)
  • East: Michigan State University Spartans (No. 7 seed, 4 percent)
  • South: Iowa State Cyclones (No. 3 seed, 15 percent)

Championship game: Pirates vs. Cyclones

Winner: Iowa State Cyclones (2 percent)

Notes: All right, this one I tried to base on as much historical evidence as possible. Who would win, pirates1 or crusaders? Check out the Mahdian or Smyrniote Crusades and see how those worked out. How about pirates vs. Fighting Irish? See: Baltimore, Sack of. The Hampton University Pirates stomp through the Midwest. As for the West, there are some pretty serious contenders — musketeers, bears, panthers, razorbacks, for instance — but I’m going with the Tigers. And history says that it’s hard for anything — even a wolfpack — to beat Spartans. I say they sweep the East.

But you think some Spartans could contend with a cyclone? Menelaus, who dragged his sorry ass home from Troy only to see nearly his entire fleet sink in a big storm, has some bad news for you.

Listen, you can beat a lot of things in this world, but nature really isn’t one of them. The Iowa State Cyclones have a 2 percent shot of taking home the championship, the eighth-highest chance of victory in the bracket. You could have a worse bracket is all I’m saying.

A mascot bracket based on who would win a game of H.O.R.S.E.

Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics shoots against Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls during a game in 1990 at the Boston Garden in Boston.

Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics shoots against Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls during a game in 1990 in Boston.

Dick Raphael / NBAE / Getty Images

Verdict: A bad way of picking a bracket.

Final Four:

  • Midwest: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (No. 3 seed, 8 percent)
  • West: University of North Carolina Tar Heels (No. 4 seed, 8 percent)
  • East: Providence College Friars (No. 6 seed, 2 percent)
  • South: San Diego State University Aztecs (No. 8 seed, 2 percent)

Championship game: Tar Heels vs. Aztecs

Winner: University of North Carolina Tar Heels (1 percent chance of winning it all)

Notes: Spurned during the cuteness bracket, the humans finally have a shot at winning something. I think an Irish person who plays dirty can probably beat a pirate at basketball. Same goes for friars; based on my experience — particularly Catholic high school — clergy are often weirdly good at basketball. The Aztec people might not have known the modern incarnation of basketball, but I think they’d be able to get the gist of H.O.R.S.E. just fine after a life watching ōllamaliztli.

But here’s the thing. I have met a lot of tar heels — people who live in North Carolina. And all of them are superb at basketball. I don’t get it, but this is just how it works. Tar heels take this one home. UNC is not a favorite to win the tournament, though, so maybe this is not the way to go.

A mascot bracket based on equivalent comic book characters

Wolverine in "Ultimate Spider-Man" on Marvel Universe on Disney XD.

Wolverine in “Ultimate Spider-Man” on Disney XD.

Marvel / Disney XD / Getty Images

Verdict: Probably the worst way of picking a bracket.

Final Four:

  • Midwest: Wichita State Shockers (No. 7 seed, 3 percent)
  • West: Georgia State Panthers (No. 14 seed, <1 percent)
  • East: Michigan State University Spartans (No. 7 seed, 4 percent)
  • South: University of Iowa Hawkeyes (No. 7 seed, 2 percent)

Championship game: Black Panther (T’Challa) vs. Hawkeyes (Clint Barton & Kate Bishop)

Winner: University of Iowa Hawkeyes (<1 percent chance of winning it all)

Notes: I feel like this will probably be the most controversial choice, but first, two quick things about the process: One, there is a hilarious amount of overlap between college basketball team mascots and comic book characters.2 Two, and I know this may be unpopular in Indiana, but the Valparaiso University Crusaders do not get to be Batman even though he’s referred to sometimes as “the caped crusader.” If they were the Valparaiso Batmen, then they would get to win this tournament, but they’re not. Sorry.

The main contenders in this match were the Final Four teams — Black Panther; Shocker, the Spider-Man villain; the Spartans from Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed graphic novel “300”3; and the two Hawkeyes of the Avengers — but there was serious competition from Wildcat, Cyclone, Blazer, Mustang and hilariously Ute the Watcher. Anyway, T’Challa beats Shocker, and Kate Bishop and Clint Barton sweep the 300, beat Black Panther4 and cut down the nets.

This may be the worst way to pick a bracket — the University of Iowa is almost definitely not going to win the basketball tournament — but, good god, do I want to see this movie. Or at least do the movie in a year that the University of Michigan makes it to the big dance.


So what’s the final verdict?

This year, if you’re going to pick a bracket based on the mascots, you should absolutely go with the cuter mascots.

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.


  1. Whenever a team was named after a group of people — be they Tar Heels or Hoosiers — I went with an average person from that group.

  2. Briefly: Aggie, Aztek, Badger, Blazer, Bison, Bruin, Blue Devil, Buckeye, Cardinal, Cavalier, Cyclone, Duck, Leopard, Lumberjack, Mustang, Osprey, Panther, Razorback, Rebel, Shocker, Tiger, Ute, Wildcat, Wolfpack.

  3. Now a major motion picture!

  4. Because … boomerangs.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.