Groggy from a sleepless night, Wes Unseld nevertheless directed his basketball team through a long workout yesterday, his first day as head coach of the Washington Bullets, and said "there's still time to make a season out of it."

Unseld, a Bullets vice president assigned as an assistant coach going into the current season, was owner Abe Pollin's choice to replace Kevin Loughery when Pollin fired Loughery Sunday night with the club 8-19 a third of the way through the NBA race. And yesterday, Unseld said, "I've been up all night trying to figure out what this team needs. We need something.

"Whether I'm it or not, we'll see . . . A million things have been running through my mind."

Shortly after the start of practice at Bowie State, Unseld called a brief team meeting at which, he said, "I told them what I expect from them and what they can expect from me." He also made his first strategic move, eliminating a number of plays from the Bullets' offense.

"It's a matter of execution," he said. "If they can concentrate on a smaller number of plays, then maybe they'll execute better . . . You work in training camp for 30 days -- and that's twice a day, two or three hours a day -- to try and come up with a select few plays, and we still don't get it right. Besides, I don't know that many plays, anyway."

Unseld, who said he does not envision major personnel changes, won't have all that much time to prepare. He'll make his debut tonight at Capital Centre against the New Jersey Nets, another struggling team that is 5-22 this season and has not won a road game since March.

Unseld will not have to work the sideline alone. Bill Blair, another assistant under Loughery, considered leaving but decided to stay on. "With everything the way it is right now I think the best thing is for me to stay," said Blair.

Earlier in the day Blair had said, "Wes is a good man. I like him like I like Kevin, but I have to figure out what's right for the future."

Blair, who also assisted Loughery in stints with the Nets and the Chicago Bulls, said he has always wanted to be an NBA head coach, "maybe not here specifically, but somewhere. I think I'm ready, I know I'm qualified, but you have to give yourself a chance."

In the whirlwind of activity connected with his sudden appointment, Unseld admitted he "couldn't remember who started last game," when asked if he is contemplating any lineup changes for tonight. The Bullets will be trying to snap a five-game losing streak.

The last game was a 111-100 failure Saturday against the Houston Rockets. Unseld said he also couldn't recall his thoughts during the third quarter of that game, when the Bullets fell behind by 33 points.

"I was probably thinking, 'What . . . am I doing here?' I did think about the booing. I'm sure it's happened before but I couldn't remember the last time when."

The displeasure of the home crowd may have been the biggest factor in Pollin's decision to fire Loughery. Yesterday, Loughery said he preferred not to talk about the team's problems.

"I don't want to get into anything negative because I think Wes deserves a fair chance with the team," Loughery said. "I'm just going to take a few days to try and figure out exactly what I'm going to do next."

None of the players expressed surprise at Loughery's dismissal.

"They say the players never get traded," said center Moses Malone, who had questioned his teammates' collective pride after the loss to Houston. "I was sorry that a coach had to be let go, but I think that it's a new situation now. We're going to play harder now. There are a lot of games left and I still think this team knows how to win."

As Loughery did throughout his 21-month tenure, Unseld relied on his wit during a series of interviews with local media, during which he repeatedly played down his coaching acumen. "I'm not worried about stumbling or falling," he said. "I've got a big behind, I think I'll bounce right back up."

During the workout, though, Unseld displayed his infatuation with some of the subtleties that can make the difference over the course of an NBA game or season. At one point he called aside guard Steve Colter after he'd been harassed by rookie point guard Tyrone Bogues in trying to dribble the basketball up the floor.

"When you've got a guy bothering you like that and you get a pick, run him into it," Unseld said. "If you don't, it'll make it that much easier for him {to steal the ball} next time down court."

General Manager Bob Ferry said he expected the Bullets to be more physical under Unseld, a man known for setting jarring picks throughout his career. "We'll eliminate a lot and concentrate on playing hard, setting picks and being physical," Ferry said. "When you play more physically, I think the intensity comes with it."

If the Bullets are to manage a turnaround, it may well be spurred by what Blair called Unseld's "presence and intensity," which Pollin apparently hopes will compensate for just four months and 27 games of on-the-bench coaching experience.

"I wouldn't dare say I know all the nuances of being a coach," Unseld said. "I'll probably make a lot of mistakes, but I will learn and I learn quick. I guess maybe I should be frightened, but at this point, I'm not."

Later, when Glenn Brenner of WUSA-TV-9 noted that Unseld had never been a head coach before, Unseld replied: "That's not true. I coached my son's seventh-grade team last year. Does that count?"

Unseld added that he is unconcerned about the possibility of being criticized by fans who adored him as a player in 13 quality seasons during which he was the cornerstone of the franchise.

Said one member of the Bullets organization, "There's a world of difference when you're the man wearing the hat. He's such a loved figure in Washington and Baltimore, but when you're the man, people don't remember that at all."

Blair said he thought Unseld was the right choice for the job, "because he'll do the right things. He'll make the right moves, but there are 12 guys in there who have to help him."

One of them, Bernard King, said that in nine-plus NBA seasons he had never played on a team whose coach was fired in season. King said he took Loughery's firing a bit personally because "he was the first coach I played for {in} the NBA and I believe he was responsible for bringing me to the Bullets.

"But professionally, you have to recognize that management can make changes if it feels things aren't going well. Wes will perhaps bring something different from Kevin, but I think we'll play just as hard.

"There's a difference between playing hard and playing well . . ."

The practice seemed spirited, but then so were many of the workouts under Loughery. One of the Bullets' biggest problems this season has been carrying over some emotion onto the floor at Capital Centre.

Guard Darrell Walker, currently on the injured list with a sprained ankle, remarked, "Sometimes guys have come to me and said, 'Why do you play so hard in practice? Take it easy.' I've always felt that the way you play in practice is what you bring to the game."