Don Kloth has produced so many winning teams at Zion-Benton during his 24-year career that it is difficult to separate one from another. But he is sure of one thing. He knows where 6-foot-6 junior Milik Yarbrough stands among the outstanding players he has developed.
"He is very gifted offensively. He is multi-dimensional on offense. He can score in so many ways," Kloth said. "He reminds me of Lenzelle Smith Jr. in that class. He is maturing in ways that relate to more than basketball.
"He is a good passer, a leader, and has good instincts for the game. I have enjoyed coaching many teams. I always enjoy coaching teams that get along and play well and make sacrifices for each other. This team fits into that category."
Kloth admits this isn't the most talented team he has coached, not as talented as the 2008 squad that featured six Division I players, was 32-4 and finished second in Class 4A. But he said it is one of the best defensive teams he has had. And he isn't complaining about the Zee-Bees' 13-3 start.
Neither is Yarbrough, who is averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds per game. He has scholarship offers from Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State and is attracting interest from Kansas, UCLA, Stanford, Memphis and Tennessee.
"This is the best team I have played on," Yarbrough said. "We usually come off losing at Thanksgiving. But I am excited about the way it is going now. There are a lot of things we can get better at, especially on offense. But we're playing well on defense. That's how we usually win games. It gets us over the top."
After starting 9-1, Zion-Benton lost back-to-back games to Mundelein and Elk Grove. But the Zee-Bees bounced back in the Jacobs Holiday Tournament, winning their last four games in a row. They'll resume regular-season play with a North Suburban cross-over game against Lakes in Lake Villa on Jan. 8.
"I know I can score but we need other people to score. I averaged 27 points per game last season. I'm trying to get more kids involved this year," Yarbrough said. "I've been playing with these guys since fifth grade. They don't watch me. They just move around and know I will get them the ball."
Born in North Chicago, Yarbrough moved to Zion when he was 4 years old. He has watched the program grow into one of the most successful in the state. In a span of 18 years, 16 of Kloth's teams won 20 or more games. Zion-Benton was 21-10 two years ago, when Yarbrough was a freshman, but fell to 15-15 last season. It wasn't as bad as it looks.
"When Yarbrough was a freshman, he was surrounded by four seniors and we won 21 games. We were very talented and he was our top scorer," Kloth said. "Last year, Milik was our only returning player. He was surrounded by inexperienced players. We weren't as talented as in the past.
"We started three sophomores, a junior and a senior. Our best player (Yarbrough) was a sophomore. We were down at the guard position. Our conference was very strong. We had only one weak team in our conference last year and it was us unfortunately.
"It was a tough season. We were 7-7 at the Christmas break. Then we had a teachers strike. For 29 days, we didn't play a game. We didn't practice for one week. But we won seven of our last eight games and ended strong. I'm proud of how they battled through."
With momentum and experience and Yarbrough, Zion-Benton prepared for the
2012-13 season by playing a very challenging summer schedule that included tournaments at Riverside-Brookfield and Joliet West. "We got pushed around a little but we had a good summer and things are better," Kloth said.
Zion-Benton's only other loss was to highly rated Notre Dame of Niles, the winner of the Wheeling Hardwood Classic. A signature victory was over conference rival Stevenson 53-52 on Dorsey Cadette's three-point shot with five seconds to play.
"Can one shot be significant? In this case, it was. We beat a good team and got a win in our division. It set a tone and got us off on the right foot," Kloth said. "What I have noticed all year is is the kids play well together, move the ball on offense and trust one another. They are a group of kids that from a very young age have played together on traveling teams."
Yarbrough is surrounded by Cadette (6 ppg), a 5-foot-11 senior point guard; 5-foot-9 junior guard Maurice Young (5 ppg, 5 assists); 6-foot-9 junior center Chris Moragne (6 ppg, 8 rpg); and 6-foot-2 junior Trent Curry (5 ppg).
Top reserves are 5-foot-10 senior Gabe Ramirez (7 ppg) and 6-foot-2 senior Shonta Wilson (3.5 ppg, 3 rpg).
"We benefit from the fact that we have four kids who started last year and others who played off the bench," Kloth said.
"Our goal is to get out of the regional," Yarbrough said. "I don't care about our record or how many points I score. It all comes down to March. We want to show everybody that we are better than last year."
Zion-Benton is better because the guard play of Cadette and Young is better. Cadette is a scorer and Young gets steals and plays good ball defense. When the Zee-Bees have been good in the past, it was because the guards had everything under control. That's the way it is this season.
"Last year was a down season for us. People lost respect for us. They felt we didn't have anything back this year," Yarbrough said. "I'm the leader of this team. I told the kids that we needed more people to shoot the ball, not just me. They accepted it.
"We want to go Downstate. It will take more than just me scoring. Others have to contribute and play hard. My goal is to average a triple double in every game, to show I am more than a scorer. We have to get more in tune in the game and leave it all on the court."