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Mascot Madness: The NCAA Tourney In Hand-To-Hand Combat

March Madness starts in earnest today.

It’s the time of year when everyone becomes a basketball expert, or at least wishes they were. Some painstakingly research their brackets, some choose winners on a whim. But I choose by mascot.

Specifically, which mascot would win in hand-to-hand combat.

To be clear, it’s not technically my bracket. It’s my dog Wilson’s bracket. Here at Louisville Public Media, family members are invited to participate in the staff pool, and she’s been playing for the past few years. She has never won.

Filling out Wilson’s bracket takes approximately 25 times longer than filling out my own. Every year we do our research, looking up the strengths and weaknesses of bruins, buffaloes and bearcats.

This year, some first-round picks have us stumped. So we decided to call in the experts.

(Listen to the story in the audio player above.)

Maryland Terrapins vs. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Rosemary Bauman is an educator and naturist with the Louisville Nature Center. I called her hoping she could shed some light on the Maryland Terrapins' game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits.

That’s right: The tortoise and the hare.

Bauman says the terrapin is all about defense.

“They’re extremely well-protected," she says. "They go into their shell -- they pull everything inside and stay safe. They’re really good at defending themselves, let me put it that way.”

And the jackrabbit?

“They can really kick," Bauman says. "So if something were to grab a rabbit, it would just kick the daylights out of it. And they can bite pretty good, too.”

Which makes me think the turtle would just go into its shell and let the rabbit wear itself out.

“Yeah, that sounds pretty much true," Bauman says. "If they were forced into proximity with each other, that might be.”

That settles that.

Temple Owls vs. Iowa Hawkeyes

One game in the South Region pits two birds of prey against each other -- and, quite frankly, we’re not sure which is tougher.

John Wicker at Raptor Rehab of Kentucky is quick to stress that a hawk and an owl would never actually fight each other.

“But hypothetically, all things being equal, weight, size and everything else, I believe the great horned owl would come out the winner," Wicker says.

That's unexpected.

Wicker says birds fight feet first, and owls have amazing power in their feet. He says an owl is a formidable opponent even against a person. 

And he knows firsthand: An owl once sunk two of its eight talons into his hand.

“I was off work for six weeks, I was on an IV antibiotic drip for five days, I had plastic surgery on my hand, and my medical bills were over $3,000," Wicker says. "That was two talons out of eight.”

This owl could be on its way to the Final Four.

Virginia Cavaliers vs. Hampton Pirates

On the other side of the bracket, things are a little closer to home. Human versus human.

Specifically, the Virginia Cavaliers versus the Hampton Pirates. I’m pretty sure I know what a pirate is, but what exactly is a Cavalier?

“You can trace it back to the 1640s [and the] English Civil War," says Tony Dingman, teaching artist at the Frazier History Museum. "The Cavaliers were the people in support of Charles I. They were soldiers.”

Dingman says Cavaliers fought on horseback and carried flintlock muskets, pistols and swords.

“So they were pretty well-geared," he says. "Of course, these weapons are one-shot weapons. And they’re not very accurate, so you’d have to be awfully close.”

On the other hand, pirates would use anything and everything to win a fight.

“I think when you look at pirates, you’ve gotta look at the golden age, and that’s from 1650 to 1725," Dingman says. "They're vessels that are waylaying other vessels, often burning them, but taking whatever loot they can.

"You could see swords, you could see pistols, you could see longer muskets. You could see axes, bottles, anything really to win," he says.

Sounds like this competition isn’t as tough as I thought.

“Even though the Cavaliers sometimes were trained soldiers, I think I’d give the upper hand to the one who would take the underhanded route," Dingman says. "I would say hands-down, pirates would win the fight.”

Iowa State Cyclones vs. Iona Gaels

So what about mascots that aren’t animals or humans?

Like Iowa State, who are the cyclones. They’ll be up against Iona, whose mascot is -- the Gaels?

I called Ian Sacks, editor-in-chief of Iona’s student newspaper, to learn more.

“A Gael is a Celtic warrior, and it ties back to our Irish heritage," he says. "Sort of like the Boston Celtics logo.”

OK, a warrior sounds pretty tough. Does it have any weapons?

“There have been logos of our mascot with -- not quite a sword, but kind of like a sledgehammer-looking device," Sacks says.

What would happen to this hammer-wielding Celtic warrior in a cyclone?

“It would not be good," says meteorologist John Belski, who’s been covering weather in Louisville for more than 30 years.

He’s seen his fair share of tornadoes.

“Even a weak one would at least pick him up and throw him off to the side a few feet," Belski says. "Obviously, if it was one of the more violent ones, you would probably be carried hundreds of hundreds of feet.”

Are there any offensive moves a human could make against a cyclone? Say, maybe, if they had a big sledgehammer?

“No," Belski tells me. "Nothing you can do to stop a cyclone. Just run.”

We’ll see which mascots are still in the running as the tournament progresses to the second round.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.