The Washington boys basketball team will be significantly better in February than it is in November.

Getting hammered by graduation and being shorthanded in the preseason could contribute to a slow start for the Panthers.

The Washington boys basketball team will be significantly better in February than it is in November.

Getting hammered by graduation and being shorthanded in the preseason could contribute to a slow start for the Panthers.

"I think in time, we can be a competitor," said WCHS head coach Kevin Brown. "We are a very young team that has lost its top seven players."

Washington opened the season Tuesday with a 59-46 loss vs. O'Fallon in the City of Washington Invitational at the Coventry Health Tournament of Champions.

Last year, the team was 28-2, a school-record victory total, and won its seventh Mid-Illini Conference championship in the last nine years with a 14-0 record.

Only 124 of Washington's 1,762 points returns and 77 of its 772 rebounds from a season ago is back.

The EF-4 tornado that ripped through the town Nov. 17 directly impacted Panther players and the coaching staff.

"We've had an incredible amount of disruptions. It's a hard thing for them," Brown said. "It builds some character and definitely causes kids to have to focus."

Besides the twister that wrecked a large section of Washington, seniors Casey Danley and Colton Marshall and freshman Garrett Frank have been part of the football team's postseason run to the state semifinals.

Danley, who was hobbling Saturday after the loss to Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, and Marshall were unlikely to play in the four-game season-opening tournament.

But with all obstacles aside, Brown said the players are competitors who want to do well.

"We think we've got a chance to win a regional somewhere," he said. "There's no doubt this team has some of that make-up."

The events of last week have caused the young team to grow up quickly. They also were reminded of the type of city of which they are part.

"We take for granted sometimes what an incredible community we live in," said Brown.

If he is able to join the team at full strength, Danley is a player who Brown said Friday would help Washington after taking the floor in a guard position at the tail end of the 2012-13 season when he was healthy enough.

Senior post Connor Schone got stronger in the offseason and had a great fall.

"There's no doubt he's the staple in there and he's going to continue to get better," said Brown of Schone.

Marshall rejoined the program and will help with interior strength.

Chet Griffith is the fourth senior. The guard is a solid on-the-ball defender.

The Panthers could open the year with two underclassmen in the starting backcourt.

Lou Griffith, a sophomore, is learning to play hard and make better decisions at the varsity level.

Devin Whitelow, a freshman, can come in and assist Washington as a point guard.

A trio of junior wings — Chris Stephens, Alex Wiegand and Cole Cook — will look to chip in for the squad.

Sophomore forward Max Everhart just needs to be more aggressive.

Freshman forward Frank brings the physicality of a junior.

Besides Schone and Marshall, juniors Sam Black and Shane Semlow are options as post players.

The Panthers have the ability to mix and match with that group depending on how uptempo they get.

Despite the M-I losing 13-of-16 first- or second-team all-league players to graduation, multiple coaches stressed there will not be a drop off this winter.

"It will shock you how strong the conference is again," said Brown.

Limestone has three starters back from its Illinois High School Association Class 3A third-place state team. Dunlap appears to have its best group in a long time.

Metamora is young, but capable, and Morton is aiming to rebound with a roster filled with returning experience.

Washington first-team all-conference selections Alec Peters and Mason McCoy and second-team choices Tucker Harlan and Troy Adams all departed.

The '13-14 Panthers will face a schedule that includes another trip to the Effingham St. Anthony Shootout. Decatur Eisenhower will be the opponent Jan. 11.

On Jan. 16, Washington begins its inaugural Martin Luther King Tournament, which also includes a girls field. Games also will be played Jan. 17, 18 and 20.

Notre Dame, Illinois Valley Central, Grayslake North and Alton are boys teams expected to take part. There are interesting connections for Brown with multiple tournament coaches.

The year tips off for the Panthers with an always-rugged TOC slate. North Chicago and Idaho Falls (Idaho) Bonnevillle follow on Wednesday and Friday, respectively.

Myles Turner of Euless Trinity (Texas) is billed as the nation's No. 2-rated player.

"I think we topped ourself again," said Brown of the talented group of teams and players assembled for the eighth annual event.

Visit sftofc.org for tournament information.