(CBS) The Illinois basketball team may have been pegged to finish eighth in the Big Ten heading into this new season, but Illini coach John Groce isn’t selling his team short in what’s projected to be one of the nation’s toughest conferences.

“There’s an excitement level and momentum right now,” Groce said Thursday at Big Ten media days in Rosemont. “You always want that trajectory going that way. That’s certainly the case for us. I think the most important thing is continuing to be who we are.”

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After reaching the round of 32 in Groce’s initial season in Champaign, Illinois went 20-15 and grabbed an NIT berth last season. Of course, its sights are set back on the NCAA Tournament this year.

To get there, the Illini will have to overcome the loss of senior point guard Tracy Abrams, who will sit out the entire year with a knee injury. Groce likes his team’s depth this year, which he believes will help it replace Abrams.

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Illinois figures to rely heavily on transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby, as well as returning wings Rayvonte Rice and Kendrick Nunn. But it’s another player who Groce thinks could really take a big leap — Malcolm Hill, a 6-foot-6 wing who is now listed at 230 pounds after bulking up in the offseason.

“Malcolm has a gift to score,” Groce said. “He’s a multiple-position guy, which is always great to have in terms of versatility. A hard worker, high-character guy.

“He’s the the type of kid this year — a lot of times you see kids make their most significant jump between their freshman and sophomore year, and Malcolm certainly could be a candidate to do that.”

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Listen to the entire interview with Groce below.