Manute Bol is expected to play his first game of the regular season tonight when the Washington Bullets face the New York Knicks at Capital Centre.

Bol, the 7-foot-6 third-year center, sprained his left knee in the Bullets' last preseason game on Nov. 2. Yesterday he worked out with the team at Capital Centre and Coach Kevin Loughery expects him to play tonight.

"It'll be good to have him back," Loughery said. "He'll definitely help; we'll have to see how he looks with the rest of the players."

There are only three winless teams in the NBA. Only one of them has a worse record than the Bullets' 0-3 mark: the Knicks, who had the misfortune of playing one more game than Washington.

The Bullets' chances of winning will improve considerably if they can improve on defense, particularly in defensive rebounding. Bol should help.

The Bullets have been outrebounded, 157-125, and have yielded 55 offensive rebounds so far this season. Given the extra opportunities to score, and usually from in close, opponents have converted 53 percent of their shots against the Bullets.

Last season, the Los Angeles Clippers finished last in the league in defensive field goal percentage, opponents scoring on 52 percent of their shots.

"We've got to be sounder defensively," said center Moses Malone, one of the few Bullets to hold his own on the backboards. "We've all got to talk. We've got to check out on the boards . . .We just have to play together better."

Last season, the Bullets allowed the most offensive rebounds in the NBA, a total of 1,334 (the Knicks were second to last with 1,331). That's one indication that this year's problem is nothing new. Loughery concedes that but adds that the changes in his team's personnel from a year ago have created some new problems.

"Our people may not really be used to each other," he said. "They're coming from different circumstances -- some of the guys may be taking off on the break too quickly."

The irony of that is that a team can't run unless it rebounds the basketball first. The Bullets certainly didn't make that happen in Tuesday's 115-100 loss to Milwaukee, the one game in which staying at home to rebound would have made the most sense.

"They were definitely bigger than us, but they're slower, too," said forward Bernard King. "Once we got the ball, we could have gotten out on the break against them -- it shouldn't have been necessary to leave early."

The Bucks succeeded against Washington because of their height -- an advantage of at least two inches per man along the front line. The Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, seemed merely to leap over the Bullets' players to the basketball.

"We've just played two lousy road games," said Loughery. "We have to start playing good basketball."

With two games against the unbeaten Chicago Bulls and a West Coast road trip on the horizon, there certainly isn't a better time than now for the Bullets to upgrade their game. After tonight's game, they will travel to New Jersey to play the Nets on Sunday. Like the Bullets and Knicks, the Nets are winless.

The Knicks' problems have come mainly on offense. The team hasn't scored 100 points in any of its four games.

Under first-year coach Rick Pitino, the Knicks have been using traps and presses. It is a style that Pitino felt wasn't conducive to King's game, one reason he let their former scoring champion join the Bullets.