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Mike Lopresti | | March 23, 2022

Reseeding the Sweet 16 teams, by nickname

Re-ranking the men's Sweet 16 teams, by Andy Katz

Time to reseed the Sweet 16. No, not with metrics or rankings or any of that, but something much more scientific.


And not just the names themselves, but bonus points for a good backstory about how it came to be. So here goes, in reverse order:

No. 16 Houston Cougars

John R. Bender was a former coach who had moved to the University of Houston to teach physical education. He decided to start a volunteer football team and needed a nickname. He had past ties to the Washington State Cougars, so if it was good enough for Pullman, Washington, it was good enough for Texas.

No. 15 Arizona Wildcats

As in many cases with nicknames, there’s a newspaper to thank. The Los Angeles Times decided the football team had the “fight of wildcats” in a 1914 game against those always-pesky Occidental College Tigers. The first mascot was actually a bobcat, purchased for $9.41 from an army blacksmith.

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No. 14 UCLA Bruins

They were the Cubs, in deference to the main California campus and the Bears. But that had too much a little-brother tone to it. Next the Grizzlies, but when UCLA joined the Pacific Coast Conference, there were the Montana Grizzlies, who had beaten it to the name. The Bruins were Plan C. Worked fine for John Wooden.

No. 13 Villanova Wildcats

True, there are lots of Wildcat teams, but how many got their name from a guy who blocked for the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame? Edward Hunsinger went from playing end for the Irish to an assistant coach at Villanova, and it was his idea to name the teams after ferocious felines. It might not have been his idea that the women’s teams be the Wildkittens into the 1970s. Or that for a while, the name included the sport. Here come the Villanova Polocats.

No. 12 Gonzaga Bulldogs

There’s irony here. The Bulldogs get their name from a 1920s’ reporter who said they fought with the tenacity of the Bulldogs. That would be the football Bulldogs. Basketball power Gonzaga hasn’t played the sport in 80 years, though it did field teams long enough to have Houston Stockton at halfback. He would one day have a grandson named John Stockton, whose middle name is Houston. But never mind all that, because most people now just call them the Zags, anyway.

No. 11 Michigan Wolverines

It’s the Wolverine state, of course, but why? One theory holds that comes from the 1800s border squabble with Ohio over where the state line should be. It’s not fully known whether the Michiganders gave themselves the name to portray strength, or the Ohio folks did it to note a gluttonous creature. It’s a pretty easy guess which side of that issue Woody Hayes would take.

No. 10 Iowa State Cyclones

Those newspaper fellows. A tornado outbreak in Iowa 1895 – they were more commonly called cyclones then – must have put the idea in mind, so when the Iowa Agricultural College came to town and walloped Northwestern, the Chicago Tribune headline blared that the Wildcats had been “struck by a cyclone.” If the other term were more common back then, it'd be the Iowa State Tornadoes playing this week.

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No. 9. North Carolina Tar Heels

One story has the Tar Heel State name stretching back to the Civil War, where troops talked of being obstinate and holding their ground as if their heels were stuck in tar. Also, tar was a main product of the state. How all that ended up with Armando Bacot wearing sky blue on the road is a little unclear.

No. 8 Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas pioneers proclaimed themselves Jayhawks for the trials they were willing to endure, combining the qualities of blue jays and mountain hawks. The name seemed to stick during the Civil War with the Kansas free staters in their fight against pro-slavery factions. Those two birds were combined, for the Kansas sport chant that would one day become famous. Rock Chalk Blue Jays? Nah.

No. 7 Miami Hurricanes

The story goes that the school administration was thinking about naming the teams after a Florida flower or fauna, and the footballers were appalled. So they came up with Hurricanes, to evoke the image of a team storming across the landscape. That’s certainly better than the Miami Hibiscus.

No. 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders

Once, they were the Matadors, which is why the colors are red and black, to go with the matador cape. If that was still the case, Texas Tech would be in for higher seeding. The name was changed when a reporter noted the red-clad football team playing a schedule that took it to all parts of the country, as if on a raiding mission.

No. 5 Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue was a land-grant school filled with kids from working class families who were being trained for real-world tasks such as blacksmithing and rail-splitting. When the football team mashed the snooty elite from Wabash College back in the 1890s, a headline lauded the “Burly Boiler Makers.” Probably just as well the headline writer might not have been aware that pumpkin shucking was in the curriculum, too.

No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks

So here were the Arkansas Cardinals returning from a tough win at LSU, with fans and students waiting at the train station to welcome home the conquering heroes. Out stepped coach Hugo Bezdek, who told the crowd that his team had fought like “a wild band of razorback hogs,” whom he knew to be an ill-tempered creature with a spiney back. Just what any team needs for future life in the SEC, so the name was changed by general acclamation. Extra credit for its contribution to the sports chant hall of fame. No Razorbacks, no Woo Pig Sooie.

No. 3 Providence Friars

They were once the Black and White. And also the Dominicans. Neither would quite seem to fit the Big East. Friars comes from the Dominican Order, who founded the college, and that originated with St. Dominic, who goes way back. In other words, Kansas will be playing a team with a nickname rooted in the 13th century. Friar Dom roaming the sidelines is a pretty swell mascot.

No. 2 Duke Blue Devils

Duke haters won’t like this, since they would prefer the Blue Devils not to be seeded high in anything. But you’ve got to a love a nickname that comes from World War I, and a bunch of guys in blue berets. Fighting in that conflict was the French alpine infantry battalion, les Diables Bleus. The Blue Devils. Irving Berlin mentioned them in song, and when Trinity College — Duke in its youth — needed a nickname in the 1920s, the post-World War I generation of students were keen on the image.

That Devil tag has led to some unusual moments. Just before the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis – where Duke would end up playing hometown favorite Butler – the Indianapolis Star ran a story about why people hate Duke, and included a huge front-page doctored picture of Mike Krzyzewski in horns. It did not go over well. “Juvenile,” Krzyzewski called it, and Star management hustled over to Lucas Oil Stadium to apologize. Maybe they should have had Coach K in a beret.

No. 1 Saint Peter’s Peacocks

Really, this is a landslide. We have seen Cinderella teams in the Sweet 16, but never Peacocks. And you get your choice of which story you like best about the origin.

One mentions how the college sits on land once owned by a man named Michael Reyniersz Pauw, whose name in Dutch means . . . peacock.

Another suggests the dean, Father Gannon, came up with the name in 1930 when the school had to be more or less rebuilt following a devastating fire. In mythology, the phoenix — a peacock-like bird — is a creature reborn from flames. That certainly was appropriate when Kentucky led by six the other night with 4:12 to go.

Either way, good luck this week, Saint Peter’s. Nickname-wise, you’re the team to beat.

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