A road map to the Sweet 16

How they got here: Preseason predictions aren't as worthless as you think. Back when everyone thought Kentucky was one of the best teams in the country -- not looking so bad now, is it? -- the nation's hoops punditry was equally excited about Michigan State. The only problem? The Spartans couldn't stay healthy. Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson all battled various overlapping injuries for most of the season, and from Jan. 25 on MSU never strung consecutive Big Ten wins together. Only recently have we seen the Spartans at full strength, and now that we have, consumer confidence in Tom Izzo's team -- picked by the public to win this regional -- has reached its mid-November highs.

Key trait: Offensive balance. The Spartans shoot nearly 40 percent from 3 as a team; they don't have a player in their regular rotation -- including hilariously skilled, hyperathletic center Payne -- who doesn't shoot at least 35 percent from 3. (The low number in that group, by the way? Gary Harris.) What makes Michigan State so difficult to guard is also what makes them difficult to scout: The Spartans can score in transition or in the half court, at the rim or on the perimeter. When they get going, they can bury you before you know it. (See: Crimson, Harvard.) This is going to be an amazing game.

No. 3 Iowa State

How they got here: Fred Hoiberg would be one of the most likable coaches in the country no matter how good his teams were, or what style of basketball they played; consider it a bonus that his teams are both very good and very entertaining. In 2013-14, Hoiberg got the best possible version out of the style and team makeup he has leaned on since arriving in Ames. Senior guard DeAndre Kane (ditto Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang) is basically the platonic ideal of a Hoiberg Cyclone: a 6-4 point guard big enough and skilled enough to play any position on the court, often at breakneck speed. His genius takeover of ISU's third-round win over North Carolina saved the Cyclones at the last possible moment.

Key trait: When Niang lost the rest of his tournament to a fractured foot, it was safe to wonder whether the Cyclones could still run the devastating spread offense they've thrived on all season long. After all, Niang's combination of size and guard skills made it all work. But junior forward Dustin Hogue is an even better offensive rebounder, and Monte Morris and Naz Long are more than capable of picking up extra minutes. Iowa State will run at you, score a bunch of points and look really good doing it.

No. 7 Connecticut

How they got here: Were there no such thing as a Doug McDermott, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier would be the front-runner for all manner of player of the year awards. He has had a remarkable season: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game while shooting 45.2 percent from 2 and 38.8 percent from 3 -- and finding a teammate for an assist on 31.0 percent of his possessions. UConn coach Kevin Ollie structured everything the Huskies do around Napier's brilliance, and paired it with a top-10 defense that protects the interior as well as any team in the country. By the time Napier had returned from injury to last week's win over No. 2 seed Villanova, and tossed in another bonkers scoop at the rim, did anyone even consider it an upset?

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