New Washington Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery may be one step ahead of his predecessor, Gene Shue, when the team faces the Philadelphia 76ers tonight at the Spectrum.

Center/forward Jeff Ruland, the team leader who has missed the last 12 games because of a strained left knee, participated in Loughery's first practice yesterday, a two-hour-plus session at Bowie State College. Although Ruland would not comment on his status for the game, Loughery seemed hopeful he would play.

If so, it would make the task facing Loughery -- trying to take control of a team with only 13 regular-season games remaining -- a lot easier. Shue was fired Wednesday after coaching the team to a 32-37 mark this season.

"I can't remember a team, with 13 or so games left in the regular season, that was going to be in the playoffs and just looking for some fine-tuning, making a change like this," said guard Gus Williams.

Even more perplexing to some team members is the fact that Loughery, like Shue, has a career coaching record under .500 and, at times, has shown a reluctance to play fast-break basketball.

"Kevin's played it both ways," said forward Tom McMillen, who played under Loughery at Atlanta. "The Hawks ran moderately. It wasn't as if we were the L.A. Lakers or anything. But I don't think there will be any dramatic, wholesale changes; it will be more putting things into place and fine-tuning."

McMillen may be surprised, because it appears that Loughery's thinking has changed.

"No matter what, we're going to get the ball to the front court," Loughery told the team before practice. "We're going to run on missed shots, on turnovers and, against some teams, after scores."

There are two possible explanations for the move to an up-tempo game. One was provided by Loughery, who said that being away from the game for eight months -- he was fired last July by the Chicago Bulls -- has fostered a change in philosophy.

"The sophistication of defenses in the NBA says you have to get some easy baskets," he said. "That doesn't mean running around like wild men, but taking opportunities when we have them."

Perhaps more important, owner Abe Pollin was dissatisfied with Shue's use of the half-court style of play. Shue argued that given the personnel, that was the best way to win. That came in for question, however, given the team's four-game losing streak, which includes a 28-point loss to the New Jersey Nets and a 29-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

"Everything you can possibly think of was taken into consideration before we made the move, the up side and the down side," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "I mean, you ask where we were going, what direction we were headed in. We had four losses, do you wait for four more? Do you wait until after the season and act after the fact?

"We make the change now and perhaps something catches. The worst thing would be that we didn't make the playoffs, but even then Kevin has a chance to see the team for 13 games and then build on that."

Loughery's personality is something else he can build on. Although he readily conceded that he wasn't entirely familiar with all of the Bullets players, that didn't stop him him from barking out orders and making his wishes known.

Another switch from Shue to Loughery will come defensively, with the Bullets playing more of a helping-type style than before. They will continue to employ a trap, but unlike Shue's, which is based on funneling players into the middle of the court, Loughery prefers that opposing players be guided toward the sideline.

On offense and defense, there will be increased responsibilities for the guards, on whom Loughery admits to being harsh. The focus will shift to Williams in particular. "Gus must play well for the team to succeed," said Loughery. "Getting him back to playing where I know he can is very important for this team."

At the conclusion of practice, the two men huddled in a corner. When the brief conference was over, Williams appeared giddy over the prospect of being relied on heavily for the first time this season.

"If you look around, you'll see that the teams that win are the ones that get the ball across half court in about three seconds," Williams said. "It's just too tough to walk the ball up the court night in and night out against set defenses and expect to score or to win.

"The coach of a team is the boss, and he has a way of looking at how he can best use you, and you have to abide by that. If you don't, it's mutiny. Kevin thinks he can use me one way, Gene thought he could use me another. Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? I just know I've been running for most of my career and if we can put the ideas that Kevin is talking about out on the floor, then everyone will be happy. I'll prosper, the guys on the wings will prosper and the Washington Bullets will prosper."

Although he, too, may prosper from the move, Loughery was as stunned as anyone by Shue's firing. Loughery lives in Atlanta and worked this season as an analyst for some Detroit Pistons and Villanova University basketball games. The call from Ferry offering him a job disrupted plans to watch the NCAA Southeast regional at the Omni this weekend.

"I'm a little disoriented right now, I didn't expect to get a call at this stage of the season," Loughery said. "Having played here it's an easy situation to readjust to, but if it weren't for the people here, Abe Pollin and Bob Ferry, I probably wouldn't have taken the job.

"I would love to play the up-tempo game, but a lot of that depends on the players. You can have a philosophy, but you have to adjust to what's available and what they can do, and this isn't training camp. There are only 13 games left in the season."