In one of my favorite Cheers episodes, dorky Diane wins the bar’s pro football pool by selecting the victors according to which cities have the best symphony conductors.
I am pretty much in the same boat when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. I have no one to root for—my hometown Memphis Tigers didn’t make the cut, and my Division III alma mater, Centre College, is hardly a Sports Center staple.
Luckily this weekend I volunteered at a wildlife rehab center, where, while cleaning up squirrel scat, I learned those little guys are #1-seed North Carolina’s state mammal. Which gave me a slightly nerdy idea for my bracket. What if I based it on official state animals?
After all, the animals are selected for their strength, smarts, and contributions to state culture. Many of the options seem like obvious winners. Kansas (Kansas, Wichita State) has its bison, and Miami and Florida Gulf Coast are represented by Florida’s state reptile, the alligator.
Others are a little more surprising, but kinda make sense when you think about it. Second-seeded Oklahoma’s state amphibian is the bullfrog, which is America’s largest frog–aggressive and even believed to be resistant to snake venom. That’s one potent game plan.
Washington has perennial competitor Gonzaga back in the running this year, along with the Pacific tree frog. This clever state amphibian is wiggles its toes to attract its meals. (May also explain all the Tevas in Washington.)
Ohio, with Xavier, Dayton, and Cincinnati in the tourney, boasts the spotted salamander as its state amphibian. No need to worry about injuries here–when attacked, it can grow back missing limbs and even parts of its brain. Its BRAIN!
Tennessee is fielding four squads this year—Vanderbilt, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, and Austin Peay. Though seeded merely 11, 12, 15, and 16, maybe the teams can look to Tennessee’s state commercial fish, the channel catfish, for inspiration. They have highly evolved sensory systems and can size up rivals from sex to social status just by smell alone.
Thirteenth-seed Hawaii’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, actually has two spines! One braces the other when the fish shelters in small spaces, and predators can’t get it out. What coach wouldn’t want that kind of defense?
Kentucky’s state insect is the viceroy, a butterfly that mimics in its color patterns the more delicious monarch, but instead—like Kentucky’s shooting—gives predators heartburn with its high concentrations of salicylic acid.
Finally, though nowhere near an ocean, Utah’s state bird is the seagull. As the story goes, when Mormons settled the state, locusts attacked their crops until, like a miracle, gulls appeared and ate them. As a 3-seed, Utah probably won’t need any miracles, unlike 15-seed Weber State of Ogden. But with the praying mantis as Connecticut’s state insect, maybe 12-seed Yale will get a miracle of its own.
As for me, I’ll be praying for mercy when I call in sick to watch hoops.