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Daniel Wilco & Zach Pekale | February 8, 2020

How to pick your NCAA tournament bracket based on team mascots

Tracing the NCAA bracket from 1851 London, through 1977 Staten Island, to today

In an alternate universe, the NCAA tournament is decided trial-by-combat style, with each school's mascot serving as its champion.

Mascot basketball, as we all know, is the sport at its purest form. Exhibit A:

Until that becomes acceptable in this universe, though, we’ll just have to imagine. Or we could take a detailed statistical dive into the NCAA tournament success of each type of mascot and pretend like the fuzzy character cheering teams on from the sideline has a tangible impact on a team's performance in March Madness.

Let's do that.

We looked at all 304 schools that have played an NCAA tournament game since 1985 (the start of the tournament's modern format) and separated their mascots into nine categories:

Bears, Birds, Cats, Dogs, Miscellaneous, Mythical, Other Animals, People, Weather/Elemental.

While most mascots easily fit into one of these categories, some were more complicated, so we looked up the history of the mascot’s origin in those cases. For example, while the North Carolina Tar Heels' on-court mascot is a ram, there are two stories for how the Tar Heels got their nickname and both are about humans. So the Tar Heels fall into our People category.

Here’s what we found:

People are the most common mascots. Of the 304 teams that have played in the NCAA tournament since 1985, 92 have had human mascots, from the North Carolina A&T Aggies to the Hawaii Warriors. Up until 2019, the most common mascot name was a tie between Tigers (Jackson State, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Towson, Pacific, Princeton, Clemson, Auburn, LSU, Missouri and Memphis) and Bulldogs (Drake, North Carolina-Asheville, Samford, South Carolina State, Fresno State, Yale, Louisiana Tech, Georgia, Mississippi State, Butler and Gonzaga) with 11 each. Gardner-Webb made its first tournament appearance in 2019, giving the Bulldogs a dozen representatives.

Mascot Type Number of teams wins losses Win %
People 92 647 702 48.0
Cats 48 370 363 50.5
Birds 47 266 285 48.3
Other Animals 45 298 291 50.6
Dogs 30 217 206 51.3
Mythical 14 125 90 58.1
Bears 12 73 84 46.5
Weather/Elemental 9 79 86 47.9
Miscellaneous 7 130 96 57.5

When it comes to winning games, Mythical and Miscellaneous teams come up clutch.

The Mythical category includes the five-time national champion Duke Blue Devils (and the zero-time national champion Central Connecticut Blue Devils). The 14 teams in that category have played 215 games and are 125-90 (58.1 percent) in the tournament since 1985, though that might be (see: definitely is) heavily skewed by Duke's NCAA-leading 97 NCAA tournament wins since 1985. No other Mythical team has even been to a Final Four since 1985, and the next-winningest team in the category would be the DePaul Blue Demons, who are 7-9 in March Madness play.

Miscellaneous teams have a little more parity, with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Stanford Cardinal, Syracuse Orange, and Wichita State Shockers all having double-digit NCAA tournament wins. That category as a whole is 130-96 (57.5 percent) in the tournament.

Here's the NCAA tournament winning percentages for each mascot category.

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Miscellaneous teams get even more impressive when you look at how many wins each category has per team.

Here's the average number of NCAA tournament wins for each mascot category.

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That's because Miscellaneous includes only seven teams: the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns (an actual pepper), the Harvard Crimson (a color), the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (a ... something?), the Wichita State Shockers (an anthropomorphic bundle of wheat), the Stanford Cardinal (a tree straight from your nightmares), the Ohio State Buckeyes (a poisonous nut) and the Syracuse Orange (a happy piece of fruit).

Combined, the seven Miscellaneous squads have 97 NCAA tournament appearances. They've been to 10 Final Fours (Syracuse five times, Ohio State thrice, Stanford and Wichita State once each), and won one title: Syracuse in 2003.

The only category with a winning record against Miscellaneous is Weather/Elemental teams, which includes schools such as the Pepperdine Waves, the Tulane Green Wave, the Miami Hurricanes, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the Iowa State Cyclones. 

  vs. Bears vs. Birds vs. Cats vs. Dogs vs. Misc. vs. Mythical vs. Other vs. People vs. W/E
Bears 1-1 7-5 14-17 5-9 2-4 5-8 10-16 22-20 7-3
Birds 5-7 30-30 46-55 19-26 11-11 22-18 38-38 91-92 4-8
Cats 17-14 55-46 55-55 28-37 13-22 12-15 47-54 127-105 16-15
Dogs 10-5 26-19 37-28 25-25 12-17 4-14 31-27 64-64 8-7
Misc. 4-2 11-11 22-13 17-12 4-4 7-3 18-14 43-30 4-7
Mythical 8-5 18-22 15-12 14-4 3-7 2-2 20-10 38-27 7-1
Other 16-10 38-38 54-47 27-31 14-18 10-20 38-38 92-78 10-11
People 20-22 92-91 107-127 64-64 30-43 27-38 78-92 201-201 27-24
W/E 3-7 8-4 15-16 7-8 7-4 1-7 11-10 24-27 3-3

Other fun facts from the data:

  • The most one-sided matchup is Mythical teams' 7-1 lead over Weather/Elemental teams, though demons' ability to control the weather and fire doesn't surprise us too much.
  • Dogs are 37-28¬†(56.9¬†percent) against Cats in the tournament, which settles that feud once and for all, right?
  • Bird teams are 4-8 against Weather/Elemental teams. Cyclones have taken down Redbirds, Eagles, and RedHawks.
  • Seafaring warriors, on the other hand, fare fairly well well against rough waves. Midshipmen, Pirates, and Spartans (they had boats, give us a break) have all survived Hurricanes and Cyclones.

Finally, when it comes to the title game, it's good to be a Wildcat. Villanova (1985, 2016, 2018), Kentucky (1996, 1998, 2012), and Arizona (1997) are 7-3 in championship games since 1985, though Virginia secured a tie-breaking eighth championship for People in 2019. The next closest mascot is the Blue Devil, as Duke has five national titles to its name (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015) in nine trips to the championship.

Here's how many championships each mascot category has since 1985.

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So what to take from this other than the realization that mascots have absolutely no impact on the NCAA tournament?

If you want to pick your bracket in hopes that the mascots themselves will take the court ... well, you probably shouldn't be picking brackets. But if you insist, go with demons and anthropomorphic food.

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