January 22 is too early to call the SEC race. But it’s not too early to say No. 2 Auburn has created substantial distance between itself and the pack after the Tigers’ 80-71 win over No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday.

The Tigers struggled early, but the combination of talent, a raucous environment in a sold-out Auburn Arena, and a couple of untimely injuries to Kentucky’s starting backcourt led an impressive Auburn comeback that could vault the Tigers to No. 1 in the country for the first time when the rankings are released Monday.

Kentucky’s loss was doubly frustrating as the Wildcats jumped to an early double-digit lead before suffering a pair of costly losses that left UK unable to counter the deluge of Auburn depth.

Early in the game, the Wildcats rode a sharp start to a 25-16 advantage. But points 24 and 25 were costly, as freshman guard TyTy Washington sank a jump shot and rolled his ankle by landing on a teammate’s leg. Washington, who had 4 points in Kentucky’s initial burst, limped from the floor and could not return. Even without Washington, Kentucky battled to hold onto a 4-point halftime lead, 33-29.

Auburn rallied to take the lead early in the second half, but Kentucky was within 48-47 when UK point guard Sahvir Wheeler ran into a screen. More accurate, the 5-11 Wheeler collided with the 7-1 mountain that is Auburn’s Walker Kessler, and his tumble to the court was immediately followed by an Auburn 3-point basket and Wheeler’s departure. Wheeler returned, but not until Auburn had built an insurmountable advantage.

The Tigers showcased a balanced offense, with Kessler, a UNC transfer, putting up 19 points, Georgia transfer KD Johnson adding 17, and super frosh Jabari Smith quietly adding 14 points and 7 boards. UK was led by 17 points from Wheeler and Davidson transfer Kellen Grady and the 13th double-double of the season from Oscar Tshiebwe, with 16 points and 14 boards.

For Auburn, the takeaway from this game is immediate.

Auburn was a Final Four squad in the last non-COVID NCAA Tournament, and is clearly one of the nation’s top teams this season. They now hold a 2-loss advantage over the entire SEC except for Texas A&M. The road to the top of the SEC goes through the Tigers. For a program that had just a dozen all-time NCAA Tournament victories before Bruce Pearl took over the team, that’s no small thing. Auburn’s basketball history has been plenty of valley with occasional peaks of unsustained excellence. If the Tigers can reach a second Final Four in 4 seasons, it’d be hard to argue that isn’t sustained or excellent.

There’s also a reasonable chance that Auburn supplants Gonzaga for the No. 1 ranking — a spot the Tigers have never held. The Tigers were No. 2 this week but had 11 more 1st-place votes than the Zags.

For Kentucky, the Wildcats showed moments of what could be. When the Wildcats are intact, they are capable of taking the fight to anyone in the nation. But Washington looked likely to miss a handful of games with an ankle sprain, which comes at a rough time for a Kentucky team about to face Kansas next Saturday. Wheeler returned to action despite his injury, but the mighty mite guard gets hit at a rate that would embarrass an NFL quarterback. Kentucky is likely to enter February with one starting guard out of the lineup and another playing through whiplash-type injuries.

Of course, Kentucky’s X factor could be mid-year enrollee Shaedon Sharpe. John Calipari has been mum regarding whether Sharpe will suit up at all for the 2021-22 Wildcats. But with the recent news that Sharpe will be eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft, if Washington has to miss more than a couple of games, Calipari and Sharpe might want to revisit the young man’s future.

Auburn, meanwhile, is living the dream. A game at Tennessee in late February is the only game left on their regular-season schedule in which they’ll face a ranked team. The road to the top of the SEC runs through Auburn. And while an injured Kentucky team showed that they can make a run, the Tigers have earned the top spot.