Phelps vs. Lochte will be the water-cooler debate going into the London Olympics. The world's two best swimmers should go head to head in two events -- the 200-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley. Phelps is the defending Olympic champion in both, but Lochte won both world titles this year, becoming the alpha male of the pool in the process. Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, feed on any form of motivation they can find. You can bet Phelps is reminded daily about those two losses at worlds, where Lochte needed two personal bests to win by a combined half-second. Phelps said he wasn't in peak shape at that meet, but we also don't know if Lochte has reached his limit yet.
2 of 31Andrew Hancock/SI
The four-time MVP missed the 2011 season because of a neck injury, sparking near-daily speculation about his future in Indianapolis, especially as the Colts struggled to the point of being in the driver's seat to get the No. 1 pick and draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Manning, due a $28 million bonus in March, resumed throwing in December. Will the 35-year-old be able to return next season? If so, will it be for the Colts (owner Jim Irsay has indicated "yes,"), or will the possible addition of a franchise QB through the draft lead to Manning's departure after 14 years in Indianapolis? Stay tuned.
3 of 31Bill Frakes/SI
Bolt's performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he set world records in the 100 and 200 meters, created a ridiculous standard. And then a year later, he broke the 100 (9.58) and 200 (19.19) records at the world championships in Berlin, raising the bar of expectation even further. Can Bolt live up to the hype in London? It won't be easy: Bolt has slowed slightly, while Tyson Gay (2010) followed by Yohan Blake (2011) sped up enough to create stiffer challenges.
4 of 31Gene J. Puskar/AP
The face of the NHL's ongoing concussion epidemic played only 10 games during the calendar year of 2011. When the Penguins put him back on injured reserve on Dec. 17, there was no timetable for his return and his teammates began openly contemplating the unthinkable. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it," defenseman Matt Niskanen told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review . "There is always that scare, guys out there ... who probably aren't coming back. It's always a possibility." While Crosby recovers, he'll be conspicuous by his absence. When -- or if -- he returns, his every shift will be cause to hold your breath as the still-young career of hockey's best player is now at the mercy of a most capricious affliction.
5 of 31Kohjiro Kinno/SI
Tiger's win at the Chevron World Challenge in December wasn't major, but his fist pump on the 18th green showed how meaningful it was to Woods. It had been more than two years since his last victory, at the 2009 Australian Masters, and in that time he'd been divorced, changed coaches and caddies, and lost (and gained) several sponsors. But he still needs to win a full-field tournament to complete his comeback. If he were stock, now would be a good time to buy. Few will be surprised if Woods wins in 2012, maybe more than once, and maybe soon. (U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy will also be one to watch in 2012.)
6 of 31Peter Read Miller/SI
Luck has been the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft since the day last January when he announced his plans to return to Stanford for his redshirt junior season. So now there's just the little matter of finding out how good he can be as a rookie at the next level -- assuming he plays right way.
7 of 31LM Otero/AP
It says a lot about the Heat that they nearly won the title last season even with James going through a Finals funk that was so epically weird in part because of how coolly he seized crunch time against Boston and then Chicago in earlier playoff rounds. But Miami couldn't win the title with James in that state, and there are great teams that can beat the Heat if they are in anything but top form, as Dallas did last season. June figures to define LeBron's season again.
8 of 31Peter Read Miller/SI
Though she was merely a rookie in senior-level competition, Michigan's Wieber, 16, established herself as the early Olympic favorite by winning the all-around title at the world gymnastics championships in Tokyo in October. Leading up to Japan, Wieber had edged 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina of Russia to win the American Cup title and captured the U.S. national all-around crown by a full six points. Following the gold-medal efforts of Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin at the last two Olympics, Wieber may well give the U.S. a three-peat in London. (And watch out for her U.S. teammate Rebecca Bross, who is recovering from a knee injury.)
9 of 31Kohjiro Kinno/SI
You can't sign a $250 million contract without getting a certain amount of attention. Pujols isn't quite the same player he was a few years ago and now he's starting a 10-year deal at age 32. But there's no doubt he's a huge immediate upgrade for an Angels offense that had some holes last season, and his presence (along with C.J. Wilson's in Anaheim) adds plenty of spice to what should be a riveting AL West race between Mike Scioscia's team and Texas.
10 of 31Alvaro Barrientos/AP
The German broke out at the 2010 World Cup, where he was one of the tournament's best playmakers as a 21-year-old. Now established at Real Madrid, Ozil will be one of the key players at Euro 2012 in June. A young, talented German squad is expected to challenge Spain for the coveted title.
11 of 31Terry Gilliam/AP
A year after stepping down at Florida, Meyer accepted a six-year, $24 million deal from scandal-plagued Ohio State. The Buckeyes may not be bowl-eligible in 2012, but Meyer is once again taking over a once-dominant program with virtually unlimited resources and top-notch facilities in a recruiting hotbed. At the moment, he appears ready to dominate again.
12 of 31Michael O'Neill/SI
U.S. men's basketball team
Team USA will be one of the main attractions at the London Olympics, regardless of the final makeup of the roster. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James both say they're in for the Games, and Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin could be additions to the 2008 team that won the Olympic gold in a thrilling final against Spain, which should be formidable again.
13 of 31Darren Carroll/SI
What can one of the world's most dominant athletes do for an encore? In 2011, the 22-year-old Tseng won 12 worldwide events, including two more Grand Slam tournaments to become the youngest player, male or female, to collect five major titles. Tseng said she'd be open to playing a PGA Tour tournament "if an opportunity presents itself," and the Puerto Rico Open (March 8-11) already plans to offer her an exemption.
14 of 31David Walberg/SI
Same question as Yani Tseng: What can one of the world's most dominant athletes do for an encore? By mid-September, Djokovic was 64-2 with 10 titles, including three majors, igniting debate about whether he was putting together the best season of all time. But injuries caught up with Djokovic in the fall and he lost four of his last 10 matches, bringing his year-end record to a still-otherworldy 70-6 (to go with an all-time-high $12.6 million in earnings). We won't have to wait long to see if Djokovic is recharged for 2012: The Australian Open begins Jan. 16.
15 of 31Greg Nelson/SI
Speaking of dominance: The 24-year-old "Bones" is coming off maybe the best year for any fighter in UFC history. Anytime the dynamic light heavyweight champion steps into the Octagon, it's worth paying attention.
16 of 31Adam Hunger/SI; James Crisp, Terry Gilliam, Gerry Broome/AP
2012 NBA Draft Prospects
Chances are you won't be hearing NBA scouts complaining about the lack of talent in next year's draft. Consider: Seven potential first-rounders from last year's freshman class -- Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Baylor's Perry Jones, UConn's Jeremy Lamb, Florida's Patric Young, Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Kentucky's Terrence Jones -- passed on the 2011 draft. If most or all of those players declare as sophomores, and top freshman such as Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, Quincy Miller and Michael Gilchrist follow suit, next June's draft could be the deepest in years. (Clockwise from top left: Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes)
17 of 31Robert Beck/SI; Isaac Brekken/AP
Manny Pacquiao/Floyd Mayweather
It's rare enough that boxing's two best pound-for-pound fighters toil in the same weight class. Even rarer that both are nearly the same age. So why haven't Pacquiao and Mayweather -- the best offensive and defensive fighters of this generation, respectively -- agreed to terms on what would certainly be the richest prizefight in history? It's a long story. Let's just hope the prolonged courtship ends with an actual showdown before they're past their primes.
18 of 31Adam Hunger/Reuters
Hiring Valentine is a departure for the Red Sox, who for nine years under Theo Epstein had a GM-centric structure. Manager Terry Francona, while a key member of the organization, wasn't the star the way the youthful, Moneyball-flavored Epstein was. New GM Ben Cherington, in the wake of a September collapse and rumored clubhouse misbehavior, hired one of the strongest personalities in the game, one who will pull the spotlight away from the executive suite -- and one who has a history of taking on his players. Combine that with Valentine's willingness to defy managerial convention, and things will be interesting in Boston.
19 of 31John Bazemore/AP
The 16-year-old won USA Swimming's female athlete of the year award on the heels of collecting five medals at the world championships and setting a short-court world record in the 200 backstroke at a World Cup meet in Berlin. ''She does it all,'' Michael Phelps said of Franklin, who could be one of the big stars in London.
20 of 31Ed Zurga/AP
Patrick has left IndyCar for a full-time Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports in 2012 and a concurrent 10-race Sprint Cup work-study program with Stewart-Haas Racing. It will be interesting to see if Patrick, 29, blends into a universe of current NASCAR stars or stakes her own identity. Her on-track results have been validating enough, with a top-five and three top-10s in 12 Nationwide races in 2011, and a fourth-place finish in the Nationwide Series at Las Vegas where she became the highest-finishing female in a NASCAR top-three series. Her expected bid to start in the Daytona 500 is likely to consume Speed Weeks.
21 of 31Mike Powell/SI
For the first time since 2002, Federer completed a season without winning a Grand Slam title. In fact, he didn't win a single tournament during a 10-month stretch in 2011. But the 30-year-old's finish to the year was eye-opening: He went 17-0 with three trophies, including a record sixth title at the ATP World Tour Finals, where he demolished Rafael Nadal. While the competition during that unbeaten run wasn't overwhelming, Federer at least offered a "don't-forget-about-me" warning heading into 2012.
22 of 31Porter Binks/SI
The 6-8 junior has No. 1 Baylor off to an undefeated start and positioned to make another run at a national championship. Look for Griner, who averaged 22.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.2 blocks in the Lady Bears' first 12 games, to be front and center in March -- and, Baylor hopes, early April.
23 of 31John W. McDonough/SI
Barkley's decision to forgo the NFL draft and return for his senior season makes USC a preseason top five team. It makes Barkley, who probably deserved an invitation to New York this year, a Heisman contender. And it makes Barkley an early front-runner for the top pick in the 2013 draft.
24 of 31Morry Gash/AP
Hansen and Union Rags
It's early, of course, but if you're looking for early Kentuck Derby favorites, Hansen and Union Rags headline the list. In November, unbeaten Hansen edged the favored Union Rags by a head at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
25 of 31John Raoux/AP
The Magic are in limbo: They want to hold on to the league's best center for as long as possible, but they don't want him to leave as a free agent without compensation in 2012. Howard has asked for a trade; if a deal happens before the March 15 deadline, it could have a huge impact on the championship picture.
26 of 31Porter Binks/SI
Another year, another freshman-laden Calipari team trying to win the longtime coach's first national title. Led by first-year players Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (along with sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones), Kentucky will enter the new year as one of the top three teams in the nation. Is this the year that Calipari cuts down the nets?
27 of 31Andy Wong/AP
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh
May-Treanor and Walsh did not play together in 2009 and '10, but the American duo has reunited in hopes of winning a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball. Their toughest competition is expected to come from Brazilians Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta Da Silva, who defeated May-Treanor and Walsh in the final of the world championships in June.
28 of 31Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
All Thompson did as a 16-year-old in 2011 was become the youngest winner on both the LPGA and Ladies European Tours. Two weeks after the Florida teen's five-shot victory at the Navistar LPGA Classic in September, she was cleared to play the Tour full time in 2012 despite being two years short of the required age minimum.
29 of 31Peter Read Miller/SI
The scrutiny of Tebow doesn't figure to abate in 2012, even after Broncos boss John Elway said the second quarterback "isn't going anywhere." Will Denver bring in a quality veteran to compete with Tebow next year? Or will Denver make a full-on commitment to Tebow despite his limitations as a passer? First things first: The Broncos entered Week 17 hoping to nail down a playoff spot after a 1-4 start that led to Tebow's promotion to starter.
30 of 31Chris Park/AP
The Rangers paid nearly $52 million to acquire the rights to negotiate with Darvish, who went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts in Japan last season. Assuming Texas can agree to a contract with the 25-year-old Nippon Ham Fighters right-hander, Darvish will become the latest highly touted import hoping to carry over his success in Nippon Pro Baseball to MLB. It has been 16 years since Hideo Nomo debuted in the major leagues, touching off the first generation of players who wanted to leave NPB for the majors. Forty-three players have followed Nomo's route. Only three have been named to more than one All-Star team (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Sasaski) and only 11 are active big leaguers.
31 of 31Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
Few in London will have the crowd behind them like Adlington, who, as a 19-year-old at the Beijing Olympics, became Great Britain's first swimmer to win two gold medals since 1908. Since then, Adlington has had her ups and downs, but as long as the pressure of being Britain's great swimming hope does not get to her, the older and more mature Adlington could surpass her totals from 2008.
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