Host B.J. Koubaroulis runs through the top plays from high school basketball games in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

Even as the early-season losses began to pile up, the Thomas Stone boys’ basketball team felt like it was steadily improving.

Ranked No. 12 in The Post’s preseason Top 20, the defending Maryland 3A South champions started the season 5-5, and seemed unworthy of its status as one of the preseason favorites in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.

But after a decisive 76-63 win Friday over a McDonough team they lost to last month, the Cougars (13-5, 8-0 SMAC) have won eight games in a row and sit tied with rival North Point atop the league standings heading into a crucial week of games.

“No one likes to lose, but if you’re learning something in the process, you can get better,” Thomas Stone Coach Dale Lamberth said. “It’s been that kind of a process for us so far.”

Stone returned just one starter and four varsity players from last season’s 25-2 team that lost to Patterson in the state final, and Lamberth said his players needed time to adjust to their new roles.

Junior Dion Wiley is getting major attention from Division I collegiate programs, and is also shining the spotlight on the rest of his team. (James Sherrill for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC/The Washington Post)

A surprising 62-53 loss to Huntingtown in their season opener showed the Cougars weren’t quite ready, and three straight losses to North Point, Springbrook and Magruder in late December proved they still had work to do, even if they hung with those traditional Maryland 4A powers for stretches within those games.

“Last year, [our returning players] could check into a game and they had other seasoned veteran players on the floor with them,” Lamberth said. “This year, technically they’re the veteran players and they had to get used to that.”

Since the team’s rocky start, senior guard Michael Briscoe — the lone holdover from last year’s starting five — has thrived with his new supporting cast, and after a 34-point performance against McDonough that put him over 1,000 points for his career, he is averaging 19.4 points per game.

Fellow returners senior Tony Doublin and juniors Jordan Battle and Jourdan Lamberth have embraced their expanded roles, and the Cougars are finally starting to become the team they expected to be.

A rematch with Huntingtown awaits on Wednesday, and a trip to North Point on Friday will likely decide the SMAC title.

“We’re in the second round of our schedule now so we’re seeing the teams we saw early on,” Lamberth said. “We’ve been able to compete, and clearly we aren’t the same team we were at the beginning of the season.”